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When must workers’ comp pay for overdose?

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in Compensation and Benefits,Human Resources

If an employee dies of an accidental prescription drug overdose, you’d think it would be hard for the family to claim workers’ compensation death benefits. But as the California Supreme Court shows, if an employee can claim the injury was work-related, an overdose on the resulting medications could trigger a workers’ comp claim.

Recent case: Brandon fell 10 feet while working as a carpenter for South Coast Framing. He suffered neck and back injuries as well as a concussion. His workers’ compensation doctor prescribed various drugs to treat these injuries, including Elavil (an antidepressant), Neurontin (a neuronal pain reliever), and Vico­din (a codeine-based pain reliever). Later, his personal doctor prescribed Xanax (an anti-anxiety medicine) and Ambien (a sleep aid).

One morning, Brandon’s wife was unable to rouse him and he was pronounced dead. The autopsy surgeon concluded the death was accidental and “is best attributed to the combined toxic effects of the four sedating drugs detected in his blood with associated early pneumonia.”

There was no dispute that Brandon died as a result of the com­­­­­­bined effects the drugs he took. The dispute centered around which drugs played a role, how big that role was, and why the drugs were prescribed.

Brandon’s wife filed for workers’ compensation death benefits. Her request was turned down because medications prescribed by the family doctor contributed to death.

But on appeal, the California Supreme Court allowed the benefits. It reasoned that the additional drugs were prescribed because of complications related to the workplace injury and therefore the death resulted from the injury. Had he not been injured at work, he would not have taken pain and other medication to relieve his suffering and would not have died. (South Coast Framing v. WCAB, No. S215637, Supreme Court of California)

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