Court of Civil Appeals Sets Forth Standard of Proof for Causation in Death Case
Karen Harris v. Russell Petroleum Corporation:
On August 6, 2010 the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals set out the standard of proof when dealing with the medical cause of successive injuries in workers’ compensation.
The wife of a deceased fuel-delivery truck driver sued the employer claiming that her husband’s death was compensable under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. The employee had worked for the employer for almost thirty years. During his employment, he had two work related accidents for which he received workers’ compensation benefits. In 2001, the employee injured his right knee and in 2002, he injured his left knee. Both of these accidents required surgical intervention at the time of the accident. In 2008, the employee underwent bilateral knee replacement surgery. One day after the surgery, the employee suffered a stroke, which resulted in his death.
The wife claimed that the cumulative stress of performing the employee’s job duties had caused the employee to need the knee replacement surgery and that the surgery had, in turn, caused the employee’s stroke. The trial court relied on the testimony of the orthopedic doctor who treated the employee as well as, a board certified neurologist in determinating whether or not the knee surgery had indeed been the cause of the stroke. The court found that because neither doctor could say to a "medical degree of certainty" that the knee surgery caused the stroke, that there was no "clear and convincing evidence" to establish a causal link between the two. Therefore, the trial judge ruled in favor of the employer and the employee appealed the decision.
The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reiterated that when a primary injury is shown to have arisen out of and in the course of the employment; every other injury that flows from the first injury, also arises out of the course of employment; unless the claimant’s intentional conduct caused the new injury. The Court made a distinction between a claim that the original injury gradually caused the current injury; and a claim that the original injury suddenly and traumatically caused the new injury. In the first instance, the clear and convincing evidence standard would apply but, in the second instance, the preponderance of the evidence standard would apply. The distinction is one of degree. Preponderance of the evidence means that the claimant needs only to prove that the old injury more likely than not caused the new one. Clear and convincing evidence means that the claimant needs to prove a high probability that the old injury caused the new one.
The Court also took the opportunity to clarify the issue of whether there needed to be a finding to a medial degree of certainty that the knee injury caused the employee’s stroke. The Court stated that the employee did not need to have any "magic words" to prove that they new injury was caused by the old one; but rather that the Court should have made such a finding if the evidence, when viewed as a whole had shown that there was more than a mere possibility that the knee replacement surgery caused the employee’s stroke.
The Court of Civil Appeals thus reversed and remanded the case back to the Montgomery Circuit Court in accordance with its finding.