Safety and OSHA News

Courts order companies to pay death benefits for injured workers’ opioid overdoses

Courts are forcing companies to pay workers’ comp death benefits to families of injured employees whose addiction and death resulted from opioids prescribed for work injuries. 

That’s the conclusion of a new paper from the National Safety Council.

The NSC identified 15 cases heard by state appeal or supreme courts to determine whether companies’ workers’ comp insurance should pay death benefits for overdoses of opioids prescribed for workplace injuries.

In the majority of the cases, the courts ruled companies’ insurance should pay.

The NSC paper focuses on six cases. Safety News Alert has written about two of them.

Opioid for back injury

Bruce Stewart injured his back at work when a bolt fell on him from above. His doctor prescribed hydrocodone.

Three months later, Stewart died from an overdose of hydrocodone. His wife sought death benefits. His employer tried to deny them.

The case came down to this question: Did Stewart’s death result from intentionally taking too much hydrocodone?

His wife testified there were times he got confused about whether he’d taken his pain meds. Confusion is one of the side effects from opioids.

A jury determined it was Stewart’s confusion that caused him to overdose. An appeals court and the Texas Supreme Court upheld the jury’s decision. Stewart’s wife received death benefits.

A side note about this case: The pathologist who performed the autopsy on Stewart said this situation is becoming more and more common. “I see it a lot,” the doctor said. “I do autopsies on people with chronic pain a lot … they increase the drugs to try to alleviate the pain more and pretty soon they’re taking more than prescribed and pretty soon they will overdose.”

Fatal mix of meds

Anthony Sapko also suffered a back injury on the job and was prescribed Oxycodone. For five years before he was prescribed the pain med, he had been taking Seroquel for depression.

Sapko died of an overdose of the two meds. The level of Oxycodone in his system was 20 times higher than prescribed, and the level of Seroquel was five times the prescribed dose.

His widow sought death benefits, but they were denied. Through a series of appeals, the case went all the way to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

The court noted an expert testified the amount of Oxycodone alone wouldn’t have killed Sapko. The expert said it was the combination of the drugs that claimed his life.

For that reason there was a superseding cause of death, and workers’ comp death benefits weren’t provided.

How employers can protect workers

The NSC sums up the impact on the increased prescription of opioids to injured workers: Workers become addicted, suffer additional injuries and overdose. They also create additional risks for their co-workers. Courts have ordered employers and their workers’ comp insurance carriers to pay for detox, medication-assisted treatment and death benefits to surviving family.

To protect injured workers and mitigate liability, the NSC recommends employers:

  • educate workers about the risks of opioids
  • train supervisors to identify impaired employees
  • work with insurance carriers to identify inappropriate opioid prescribing
  • ensure medical providers follow prescribing guidelines and use state prescription drug monitoring programs which track prescribing history
  • expand drug testing to include all common opioids, and
  • evaluate their employee assistance programs to ensure they include access to treatment.
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