In Department of Labor & Industries v. Shirley, the Washington Court of Appeals concluded that an industrial worker’s death was “proximately caused” by an industrial accident where, years after the original injury, the worker simultaneously ingested alcohol and several medications that had been prescribed to treat pain resulting from the accident.  Such activity, the court ruled, was neither reckless nor something that the worker would not reasonably be expected to engage in.  As noted by the dissent, the majority’s analysis appears to overlook principles of forseeability (cause in fact) and public policy (legal causation).  

BACKGROUND

Brian Shirley sustained an industrial injury to his lower back in June 2004.  He filed an application for industrial insurance benefits with the Department of Labor and Industries, which allowed his claim, paid benefits, and then closed the file in March 2005.  At the time that his claim was closed, Shirley was taking only ibuprofen and no physician was prescribing medication for his injury.  When he died in May 2007, the autopsy concluded that the cause of death was the combination of alcohol and several medications that had been prescribed to treat pain resulting from the previous accident.  Shirley’s surviving spouse filed a claim for survivor benefits under the Industrial Insurance Act, which the Board of Industrial Appeals ultimately granted.  The superior court subsequently upheld the Board’s decision, and the Department appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

ANALYSIS

  • On review to the superior court, the Board’s decision is prima facie correct and the burden of proof is on the party challenging the decision.
  • The superior court reviews the Board’s decision de novo, while the Court of Appeals decides only whether substantial evidence supports the superior court’s findings and then decides, de novo, whether the superior court’s conclusions of law flow from those findings.
  • The Industrial Insurance Act permits multiple proximate causes by defining proximate cause as “a cause which in a direct sequence, unbroken by any new independent cause, produces the death complained of and without which such death would not have happened.”
  • Under the Industrial Insurance Act, a worker’s fault does not break the causal chain unless (a) the worker deliberately kills himself or herself, or (b) the activity that caused the aggravation is something that the worker would not reasonably be expected to be doing.
  • Here, there was no evidence that Shirley acted intentionally or recklessly in causing his own death, and the record indicated instead that the medicines used to treat Shirley’s chronic back pain were a contributing cause of his death.

Based on this analysis, the panel majority concluded that Shirley’s simultaneous ingestion of alcohol and multiple prescription medications did not break the chain of causation between his industrial injury and his death.

DISSENT

Judge Kenneth Grosse dissented, finding that legal causation (which turns on policy considerations) was not present and cause in fact (which turns on forseeability) was likewise not present.  Judge Gross would have concluded instead that Shirley’s deliberate ingestion of a combination of alcohol and prescription medications broke the chain of causation between his industrial injury and his death.