The Connecticut Appellate Court recently held that the “substantial factor test” for causation remains unchanged and that traditional causation rules apply to workers’ compensation cases. Marjorie Voronuk v. Electric Boat Corporation, et al., No. AC 29589 (Conn.App. Dec.1, 2009).
The widow of a deceased employee brought a claim for survivor benefits after her husband passed away. A physician for the plaintiff concluded that her husband’s lung disease, which was caused by asbestosis, was a contributory factor in the condition which ultimately caused his death. The workers’ compensation commissioner, however, denied the plaintiff’s claim for survivor benefits, finding that although her husband’s death was caused, in part, by his exposure to asbestos, his resulting asbestosis was not “a substantial and/or significant contributing factor to his death.” The commissioner’s finding was upheld by the workers’ compensation review board.
On appeal, plaintiff maintained that the commissioner improperly applied the substantial factor test and abused his discretion. First, plaintiff maintained that after the Supreme Court’s holding in Birnie v. Electric Boat Corp., 288 Conn. 392, 953 A.2d 28 (2008), the substantial factor causation standard in workers’ compensation cases requires that the employment or the risks incidental to employment, contribute to the development of the injury in more than a de minimis way. Plaintiff argued that, under this test, once the commissioner found that her husband’s exposure to asbestos was a cause in his death, the only means to defeat it as a substantial factor in causing his death was for the commissioner to find that it was a trivial or de minimis cause. The Appellate Court disagreed, finding that the plaintiff’s argument would remove from the commissioner the discretion to deny the plaintiff’s claim. As such, the Court held that the board did not improperly find that the commissioner retained his discretion to conclude that a cause of the decedent’s death was not, as a matter of law, a “substantial contributing factor” in his death.
Plaintiff also maintained that the commissioner abused his discretion in concluding that workplace exposure to asbestos was not a substantial factor in causing her husband’s death. Essentially, plaintiff argued that because the commissioner discussed in his conclusion that “no physician or medical report opined that this exposure and resulting asbestosis was a substantial and/or significant contributing factor to his death,” that the commissioner improperly looked for a “magic word,” such as “substantial” or “significant,” which was missing from her expert’s report. The Appellate Court, however, found that the commissioner’s conclusion could reasonably be interpreted to mean that plaintiff failed to carry her burden of proving that exposure to asbestos was a substantial contributing factor in decedent’s death, and that the record before the commissioner supported this finding.