California Supreme Court Reinforces the "Grand Bargain" in Workers' Compensation
By Keith Mackenzie, Esq.
For nearly 100 years, the premise of Workers' Compensation law in California has been based on compromise between employers and employees. The system was designed to protect employers from potentially crippling lawsuits brought by injured employees. In return for giving up their right to sue their employers, employees are entitled to prompt medical treatment for their workplace injury as well as limited monetary compensation if they miss work due to the injuries, or do not recover completely from their injuries.
In addition, anyone dependent on the support of an injured worker who dies as a result of the injuries is entitled to a recovery known as a "death benefit." This was the issue when the California Supreme Court considered the recent case of South Coast Framing, INC. et al. vs. Workers' Compensation Appeals Board, Jovelyn Clark et al.
In that case, employee Brandon Clark fell approximately 10 feet while working as a carpenter for South Coast Framing. He suffered injuries to his neck and back, as well as a concussion. In July of 2009, Mr. Clark died. At the time of his death, Mr. Clark had several legally prescribed medications in his system, including Elavil, Neurontin, Xanax and Ambien. Some of these medications had been prescribed by Mr. Clark's treating physician in his Workers' Compensation case, and the others had been prescribed by his family doctor. An autopsy determined that the cause of death was accidental, and "is best attributed to the combined toxic effects of the four sedating drugs detected in his blood."
Relying on the reports of the various doctors in the case, a Workers' Compensation judge awarded Mr. Clark's family the death benefit, finding that the medications prescribed for his work-related injury were at least contributing causes to his death. The California Court of Appeals reversed this determination, finding that being a contributing cause was not enough, and that the medications prescribed for the work injury must have been a "material factor" in Mr. Clark's death, and not just a contributing factor.
The California Supreme Court thankfully overturned this decision, recognizing the "Grand Bargain" of the Workers' Compensation system. Citing a prior case, LaTourette v. Workers' Compensation Appeals Board, the Supreme Court explained that in the Workers' Compensation system, an injured worker need only show "that the employment be one of the contributing causes without which the injury would not have occurred." If the Court had upheld the determination to prove the work injury must have been a "material factor" it would have substantially limited the right of many injured workers and their families to seek Workers' Compensation benefits, with no other legal right to recover (i.e., sue in civil court) as a result of an on-the-job injury or death.
The California Supreme Court did the right thing in South Coast Framing. Mr. Clark was injured at work, and died as a result; his family is entitled to compensation through California's Workers' Compensation system.