Ohio’s Third District Court of Appeals recently held that the family of an injured worker whose accidental death was caused by a lethal concentration of OxyContin is not entitled to death benefits under Ohio Workers’ Compensation Act.

In Parker v. Honda of America Mfg., the decedent suffered a severe back injury in 1988. Mr. Parker underwent several surgical procedures in an unsuccessful attempt to alleviate his back pain. Eventually, Mr. Parker was prescribed and began using OxyContin in 1999 and subsequently became addicted. He sought treatment for his addiction in August 2004 and again in March 2005. In March 2006, he was discovered dead with a syringe in his arm, along with a lighter and spoon and 37 OxyContin pills. Cocaine and OxyContin were found on both the syringe and spoon.

The decedent’s surviving spouse filed a claim for death benefits under the workers’ compensation law. After the request for benefits was denied administratively by the Industrial Commission of Ohio, Ms. Parker filed a complaint in common pleas court asserting that the decedent’s death was the result of an OxyContin overdose which was the direct and proximate result of his work injury. Finding that Mr. Parker’s death was “self-inflicted,” the trial court granted Honda’s summary judgment motion. Ms. Parker then appealed to the Third Appellate District.

Ohio Revised Code § 4123.54 precludes the dependents of an injured worker from receiving benefits as a result of his death if the death was “purposely self-inflicted” or where the death was caused by the injured worker being intoxicated or under the influence of a controlled substance not prescribed by a physician. The Supreme Court of Ohio, however, has carved out an exception to §4123.54 in cases where an allowed work-related injury causes the employee to become “dominated by a disturbance of the mind of such severity as to override normal rational judgment;” and the disturbance results in the employee’s suicide.

In Parker, the plaintiff presented expert testimony that Mr. Parker’s OxyContin addiction had caused him to become dominated by a disturbance of the mind as to override normal rational judgment, but the Third Appellate District was unwilling to expand Borbely to include accidental deaths caused by drug abuse. The plaintiff also relied on the Second Appellate District decision in Osborne v. Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation in which that court upheld a benefits award to the dependents of an injured worker who had accidentally taken a fatal dose of prescription medication for his industrial injury, resulting in an accidental death. The Parker court, however, distinguished that case on the ground that Mr. Parker intentionally used the OxyContin in a manner other than as prescribed (in fact by mixing it with cocaine and injecting it in his veins) which then resulted in an accidental death.

Sadly, in light of the seemingly increased incidences of injured workers misusing pain and other medication prescribed for their industrial injuries, the facts depicted in the Parker case are not isolated. To date, the courts in both intentional and accidental drug overdose cases have appropriately evaluated the evidence by looking at the causal connection between the industrial accident and the overdose. In the suicide line of cases, the courts in essence have looked to whether the allowed conditions in the workers’ compensation claim caused a mental disturbance of such severity that it overrode normal rational judgment and that then prompted the employee to commit suicide. Likewise, the accidental overdose line of cases, typified by Osborne, have focused on the cause of the accidental overdose. Therefore, it seems that the Parker court has drawn the correct, albeit narrow, line for plaintiffs to walk in these types of cases. Simply put, by intentionally misusing the prescribed Oxycontin, the decedent in Parker broke the causal connection between his industrial injury and his death and benefits were appropriately denied.