Bowman (deceased employee) by Carol McIntire (petitioner) v. A & M Moving & Storage Co. and Vanliner Ins. Co.

Bowman (deceased employee) by Carol McIntire (petitioner) v. A & M Moving & Storage Co. and Vanliner Ins. Co.  No. WC13-5551 (W.C.C.A. August 14, 2013)

In January 2014, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed this decision without an opinion.

The employer and insurer unsuccessfully appealed from a W.C.C.A. decision affirming a compensation judge’s finding that the employee’s death from a prescription drug overdose was causally related to his work injury.

On July 27, 2007, the deceased employee sustained a work-related lower back injury while working as a mover for A & M Moving & Storage Company.  In an attempt to alleviate the pain, the employee was placed on several prescription medications, including Oxycodone.  The employee had back surgery on November 26, 2008.  Because the employee continued to have low back pain, his doctor refilled his Oxycodone prescription in December 2008 and January 2009.  Approximately six months later, his doctor recommended fusion surgery.  Around that time, the employee also participated in a pain clinic program to evaluate his prescription drug use.  During this evaluation, he reported a history of alcohol abuse and chemical dependency treatment.  Because he was still taking Oxycodone, the evaluating doctor expressed concern that the employee was at risk of misuse of this medication.  Another doctor expressed the same concern after a June 2009 appointment, but renewed his prescription for Oxycodone pending approval of the fusion surgery.

Initially the insurer denied the request for fusion surgery based on Independent Medical Examination.  In August 2009, the employee filed a medical request and a hearing was ultimately scheduled for December 22, 2009.  Until then, the employee was prescribed, among other things, Oxycodone (although the prescribing doctor advised to cut back on pain medication).  A neutral evaluator examined the employee.  In his written report dated November 23, 2009, the neutral evaluator determined the fusion surgery in question was not appropriate given the employee’s multilevel degenerative disc disease.

A few days later, on November 26, 2009, the employee was found dead in his apartment.  An autopsy report concluded the cause of death was Oxycodone toxicity.  Although the Oxycodone level was at least 500 percent higher than what is considered therapeutically typical, the medical examiner ruled out death by natural causes, homicide, and suicide.  The ME also determined the death was an accident, even though the level of Oxycodone found in his blood could be reached either inadvertently or by recreational use.

Minn. Stat. § 176.111 provides for a $60,000 payment to a deceased employee’s estate “[i]n every case of death of any employee resulting from personal injury arising out of and in the course of employment where there are no persons entitled to monetary benefits of dependency compensation.”  The employer and insurer denied the petition, but a compensation judge found that the employee’s death was causally related to his July 2007 work injury and awarded payment to the employee’s estate, as well as funeral and burial expenses.