Alabama Court of Civil Appeals Affirms Award of Death Benefits
On October 26, 2012, The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals released its opinion in the case of Hornady Transportation, LLC v. Gwendolyn Fluellen. In that case, the employer appealed the judgment of the Circuit Court of Monroe County, Alabama, which awarded death benefits to Charles Fluellen’s family as a result of an truck wreck in which Fluellen died. The primary issue in the case was whether Fluellen’s death arose out of his employment with Hornady, as there was conflicting testimony as to whether Fluellen died as the result of a heart attack, or died burned to death in the fire that followed the accident. Witnesses at the scene of the accident reported that Fluellen appeared to be moving inside the fire that engulfed the cab of his truck, which suggested that he died as a result of the fire. However, the forensic pathologist who performed Fluellen’s autopsy testified that in her opinion, Fluellen had not been alive when he burned in the fire. The pathologist testified that Fluellen’s heart showed signs of a recent heart attack, and that there was no evidence to indicate that he had inhaled smoke. Over a year later, at the request of Fluellen’s family, officials reopened an inquiry into the cause of his death, and a different forensic pathologist reviewed the first pathologist’s report, and determined that Fluellen had been killed by the fire. The first pathologist received the second pathologist’s report, and stated that she had not been aware of the eyewitness accounts that Fluellen appeared to be moving while his body was engulfed in flames. She further stated that had she been aware of those witnesses’ statements, she would have concluded that Fluellen died as a result of thermal injuries. Based on the evidence, the trial Court entered judgment for Fluellen’s family, finding that his death was due to thermal injuries, and therefore occurred in and arose out of his employment with Hornady.
Hornady appealed, asserting that the trial court erred by improperly admitting hearsay eyewitness statements into evidence, and erred by admitting the second pathologist’s report into evidence because it was based on those eyewitness statements. Hornady further asserted that the trial court erred in finding that Fluellen’s death was proximately caused by an accident arising out of his employment because the only legal evidence demonstrated that Fluellen’s death was caused by an idiopathic heart attack prior to the wreck. The Alabama Court of Appeals found that the eyewitness statements and the second pathologist’s report were both admissible, and that evidence was sufficient to support the trial Court’s findings. The appellate court pointed out that while no one may ever know what caused Fluellen to crash, it is the cause of death, and not the cause of the accident, that was key in determining compensability, and that there was sufficient evidence upon which the trial Court could determine that his death was caused by the fire.
However, the Court of Appeals’ decision was not unanimous, as Judge Pittman did write a very interesting dissent. Pittman wrote that he did not believe that Fluellen’s family had met its burden of proving that the cause of death was thermal injury. He stated that even assuming that the eyewitness statements were admissible, the opinion of the second pathologist was unsupported by any evidence. Since the second pathologist did not perform another autopsy, but instead accepted the physical findings of the first pathologist’s report, his findings would have to be consistent with the data in the first report in order to be valid. Pittman further stated that Fluellen’s family failed to show that it was more likely that Fluellen’s death was caused by the fire than by a fatal heart attack prior to the fire. In his dissent, Pittman cited Ex parte Mobile Power & Light, 810 So.2d 756 (Ala. 2001), which held "Proof which goes no further than to show an injury could have occurred in an alleged way does not warrant the conclusion that it did so occur, where from the same proof the injury can with equal probability be attributed to some other cause." He also cited Ex parte Diversey Corp., 742 So.2d 1250 (Ala. 1999), which held that "There may be two or more plausible explanations as to how an event happened or what produced it; yet if the evidence is without selective application to any one of them, they remain conjectures only."