Safety and OSHA News

Was worker’s meningitis death caused by exposure to bird droppings?

The family of a groundskeeper sought death benefits under workers’ comp following his death from meningitis, which they say came from exposure to bird droppings at work. Did the family receive benefits? 

Edward Cruce worked as a groundskeeper for the School District of Indian River County in Florida.

In late summer or early fall of 2014, Cruce was told to move painting supplies from a storage shed in the football stadium to a storage area in a maintenance building. To do that, Cruce had to clean out part of the maintenance building.

On several days, Cruce came home covered in smelly white dust. He told his family it was “bird crap” from cleaning out an area containing dead pigeons, live bats and rodents.

In November 2014, Cruce began complaining of headaches. He was admitted to the hospital in December after collapsing at home. Tests showed exposure to Cryptococcus fungus with a diagnosis of cryptococcal meningitis.

Cruce died from meningitis on Jan. 10, 2015.

After Cruce became ill, the district’s director of maintenance called an environmental contracting company for recommendations about the pigeon feces he observed in the swale used for drainage under the stadium. The contractor said the best course of action was to not disturb the bird feces. The maintenance director didn’t have any testing done, but he did tell employees to stay away from the area.

Almost two years after his death, Cruce’s widow and two dependent children filed for workers’ comp death benefits, reimbursement of medical expenses and funeral expenses. The district denied the claim.

Could they prove cause of meningitis?

Florida’s workers’ comp law includes a heightened standard of proof for toxic exposures – requiring “clear and convincing evidence establishing that exposure to the specific substance involved, at the levels to which the employee was exposed, can cause the injury or disease.”

A Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) used a less strict test to determine that Cruce’s family should receive the workers’ comp benefits. The district appealed.

A Florida appeals court said compensation for an occupational disease caused by a fungus or mold requires proof of 1) actual exposure, 2) the levels to which the employee was exposed, and 3) the levels that are capable of causing injury.

Experts testified that, in theory, one Cryptococcus fungus spore could cause infection. The experts also agreed that Cryptococcus fungus is common and often found in soil.

The court said it was shown Cruce was exposed to bird feces, but it wasn’t proven that he was exposed to Cryptococcus fungus.

The stadium where Cruce worked was torn down. No testing had been done at the time of his illness. The family waited two years to file for benefits. Therefore, it would be impossible to determine actual proof of exposure and the level of exposure.

The appeals court reversed the JCC’s opinion because Cruce’s family failed to prove he was exposed to Cryptococcus fungus at work. The family would not receive workers’ comp death benefits.

(School District of Indian River County v. Edward Cruce, deceased employee, and Nova Cruce, widowFirst District Court of Appeal of Florida, No. 1D17-3342, 11/27/19)

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