A lab tech who was exposed to blood at work for decades developed hepatitis and died. His widow filed for workers’ comp death benefits. But his employer noted the employee could have contracted the disease via surgery he had. Did a court award comp benefits?
OSHA’s bloodborne pathogens regulations are less than 25 years old. Before that, many healthcare workers who were exposed to blood and human tissue didn’t wear the protective gear required today.
Stephen Smith began working as a medical laboratory technician at Capital Region Medical Center in Missouri in 1969 and continued until 2006.
Smith drew blood from patients and worked with blood, human tissue and blood products every day.
He was diagnosed with hepatitis in 1991, later identified as hepatitis C.
His condition worsened in 2005. That was when his treating physician first told Smith that it’s possible his hepatitis C may have been contracted from his hospital work.
Due to health problems associated with the disease, Smith was unable to work after March 2006. He filed a workers’ comp claim but died on Feb. 27, 2007, before the claim was settled. The cause of death was complications from hepatitis C.
After his death, Smith’s widow continued the workers’ comp claim, adding a request for death benefits.
The dispute was over how Smith contracted the disease.
Two experts, two opinions
His widow presented testimony from a medical expert who said Smith likely contracted hepatitis C by needle stick or handling blood and bodily tissue at work. The expert noted that before the mid-1990s, hospital workers exposed to blood often didn’t wear gloves to protect their hands or goggles to protect their eyes from transmission due to splashes. Needle sticks also occurred more frequently before 1992.
This doctor also testified that Smith reported he suffered multiple needle sticks at work over the course of decades.
But Smith also received a blood transfusion when he had surgery in 1970. He received six units of blood at the time.
An expert for Capital Region testified that Smith likely contracted hepatitis C when he received the 1970 blood transfusion. The doctor said Smith’s medical records from the early 1990s pointed toward chronic liver disease, which would mean an earlier exposure to hepatitis.
However, Capital Region’s expert didn’t rule out Smith’s work as a risk factor for hepatitis. This expert’s opinions also appeared to be based on an incorrect legal standard: that a specific workplace exposure event must be shown to qualify for workers’ comp. Missouri law requires medical evidence establish a probability that working conditions caused the disease.
This case has traveled back and forth within the court system. Most recently, a Missouri appeals court ruled the expert medical testimony from Smith’s doctor was enough to establish the probability that Smith was exposed to hepatitis C while employed as a lab technician at Capital Region. Therefore, Smith’s widow should receive the workers’ comp benefits.
The key: It’s not necessary for the employee to show a specific exposure caused the disease. The employee has to establish a probability that working conditions caused the disease.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments.
(Stephen Smith v. Capital Region Medical Center, Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, No. WD77043, 12/23/14)