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When cause of death is and is not work-related

Worker’s compensation law allows for payments to a worker’s surviving heirs when the worker suffers a work-related injury that ultimately “causes death.” The courts have in turn interpreted this to mean that the injury “contributes to death.”

The question of what, precisely, caused the employee’s death can be a difficult one. The Court of Appeals of New York addressed this issue in October 2013. In this case, the court was asked to consider whether the death benefits paid under New York Workers’ Compensation law should be reduced based on the degree to which the non-work-related injury caused the claimant’s death. In other words, if the Workers’ Compensation Board determines that the work-related injury was 75 percent responsible for the individual’s death, should the award be 75 percent of what it would be otherwise?

The case at issue shows how difficult such a decision can be. The worker was employed as a plumber’s helper and mechanic with Consolidated Edison Company (Con Ed) from 1958 to 1993. The same year that he retired, he was diagnosed with asbestosis and asbestos-related pleural disease as a result of on-the-job asbestos exposure. The Workers’ Compensation Board found him to be permanently partially disabled as of June 1993.

In 1999, the worker was diagnosed with thyroid cancer that was not related to his previous employment. The cancer subsequently spread to his lungs, and he was admitted to the hospital in August 2007. He died the following month. His widow then filed a claim for death benefits with the Workers’ Compensation Board. During the subsequent proceedings, a doctor provided testimony that the worker would have died from the cancer spreading to his lungs, but that his death was accelerated by the asbestosis. Con Ed argued that the asbestosis was not the underlying cause of death, and even if it were, its contribution was minimal. The Workers’ Compensation Law Judge ruled for the worker, and the full Board and Appellate Division agreed.

The Court of Appeals took up the case, and based its ruling on the language of the relevant laws. Workers’ Compensation Law section 16 states that “if the injury causes death” then the resulting payments are a death benefit and will be calculated by means set out elsewhere in Workers’ Compensation law. The Court of Appeals found that nothing in that law required or permitted the death benefits to be apportioned based on the degree to which the work-related injury caused the worker’s death. The court reasoned that the legislature would have included language to that effect had that been their intentions.

Each Workers’ Compensation claim is unique, and the facts of each case will determine its success. If you have been injured on the job or become ill as a result of your job, you should ensure that your rights are protected by contacting an experienced attorney as soon as possible.