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The family of an injured worker who died from a prescription drug overdose should receive workers compensation death benefits, the California Supreme Court has ruled.
Brandon Clark, 36, worked as a carpenter for Costa Mesa, California-based South Coast Framing Inc. and suffered back, head, neck and chest injuries when he fell off a roof at work in 2008, according to court records. His workers comp doctor prescribed Elavil, an antidepressant; Neurontin, a drug used to treat neuropathic pain; and Vicodin.
Mr. Clark also was prescribed Xanax and Ambien by his personal physician in January 2009 for anxiety and sleep problems. Medical records show that he died the following July from the combined effects of the antidepressant, Neurontin, Xanax, Ambien and associated early pneumonia.
Mr. Clark’s wife and children filed for workers comp death benefits, contending that his death was a result of his work injury and related medications, records show. A California workers comp judge awarded benefits, finding that Mr. Clark’s workers comp medications contributed to his death.
An appeal was filed by South Coast and its comp insurer, Omaha, Nebraska-based Redwood Fire & Casualty Insurance Co., and the California 4th District Court of Appeal overturned the workers comp judge’s decision in December 2013. The appellate court found that medical testimony in Mr. Clark’s case did not adequately establish that his death was caused by his comp prescriptions.
The California Supreme Court unanimously overturned that ruling on Thursday, finding that the appellate court improperly ruled Elavil was not a “significant” or a “material factor” in Mr. Clark’s death.
“This analysis fails to honor the difference between tort law principles and the application of the workers compensation scheme,” the ruling reads. “Tort liability only attaches if the defendant’s negligence was a significant or substantial factor in causing injury. In the workers compensation system, the industrial injury need only be a contributing cause to the disability.”
The state Supreme Court also ruled that physician testimony provided “substantial evidence” to support the workers comp judge’s finding that Elavil and Vicodin contributed to Mr. Clark’s death.
As managers of workers compensation struggle with claims costs linked to abuse of opioid painkillers, researchers are seeking better metrics to quantify dosages that are safe.