Employee Michael Stokes suffered an ankle injury at work which required surgery. How did this lead to his widow requesting death and funeral benefits under workers’ comp? And did she get them?
After Stokes’ authorized surgery, his incisions didn’t heal. He received professional wound care and strong antibiotics.
According to court documents, Stokes wounds became “swollen, pus-filled, odorous and inflamed.”
While being attended to by a wound-care nurse, Stokes collapsed and died.
An autopsy revealed colonies of bacteria had formed in Stokes’ heart, causing acute inflammation of heart tissues.
The only source of infection on his body was his surgical wounds.
The medical examiner concluded Stokes’ cause of death was acute bacterial infection in the heart caused by the infection resulting from the ankle surgery. The M.E. ruled out all other possible causes of death.
Stokes’ widow filed for death and funeral benefits under workers’ comp. The employer and insurance carrier denied the claim on the basis that Stokes’ death wasn’t caused by the ankle infection.
Before a Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC), the company presented testimony from a toxicologist who said Stokes could have died from other causes, and that a link between the workplace injury and the cause of death couldn’t be made without culturing the ankle to match the bacteria found in the heart.
The JCC denied death benefits because no culture was taken of Stokes’ ankle wound, therefore no link could be drawn to the heart bacteria. Stokes’ widow took her case to a state appeals court.
Absolute or reasonable degree of certainty?
The appeals court said the essence of the toxicologist’s testimony was that there wasn’t absolute certainty that the bacteria found clumped in Stokes’ heart entered through the ankle wound.
However, Florida’s Workers’ Compensation Law states a reasonable degree of medical certainty, not absolute certainty, was needed to show an occupational link to injury or death.
The medical examiner’s expert opinion showed the occupational link, according to the court.
The appeals court reversed the decision and sent the case back to the JCC to determine proper death benefits.
Suggestion: This might be an interesting case for a safety meeting — not as a tutorial about workers’ comp, but as story for hard-to-reach workers who think they’ll never suffer a catastrophic injury at work.
(Stokes v. Schindler Elevator Corp., Dist. Crt. of FL, No. 1D10-1748, 5/9/2011.)