The plaintiff was denied her workers’ compensation survivor benefits following the untimely death of her husband, who was a corrections officer for the state of Connecticut. In his service as a correctional officer, Mr. Sapko experienced four incidents that gave rise to claims for workers’ compensation benefits.
The decedent was prescribed the narcotic pain reliever Oxycodone for his compensable work injuries and Seroquel for his unrelated depression. However, the record indicated that at the time of his death, the decedent’s level of Oxycodone was 20 times higher that the therapeutic dosage and his level of Seroquel was in excess of five times higher than the therapeutic dosages. Doctors testified that the drugs can be taken safely together in the proper dosages, and the high levels of either drug alone is unlikely to cause a death. The decedent’s death was ruled the result of the excessive combined drug toxicity of Oxycodone and Seroquel.
Interestingly, first the Commissioner and Compensation Review Board denied plaintiff's claim, determining that the decedent's ingestion of high dosages of Oxycodone and Seroquel represented a superseding cause of his death and, therefore, the decedent's compensable work injuries were not the proximate cause of his death.
A superseding cause is an independent event, which occurs after a previous act leading to an incident, which substantially causes the incident thus breaking the chain of proximate cause. The superseding cause cuts off or relieves the party whose act started the series of events which led to the incident from responsibility or liability, since the original negligence is no longer the proximate cause.
In evaluating the review board’s decision, the Connecticut Appellate Court agreed with the denial of survivor benefits, even though it concluded that (1) the board incorrectly determined that the superseding cause doctrine applied to the present case, but (2) this impropriety was harmless because the board correctly concluded that the commissioner appropriately decided the issue of proximate cause.
On further appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed with the two previous denials, but for alternative reasons, holding that the board correctly concluded that the commissioner's finding that superseding events broke the chain of proximate causation between the decedent's compensable work injuries and his death constituted a proper application of the law to the facts.
The interesting part of this case is the fact that the compensation board denied the claimant’s survivor benefits, the appellate court reversed the commission’s decision, but still denied benefits and the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the Connecticut Appellate Court and still denied benefits.
Richard P. Hastings is a Connecticut personal injury lawyer at Hastings, Cohan & Walsh, LLP, with offices throughout the state. A graduate of Fordham Law School, he has been named a New England Super Lawyer and is the author of the books: "The Crash Course on Child Injury Claims"; "The Crash Course on Personal Injury Claims in Connecticut" and "The Crash Course on Motorcycle Accidents." He has also co-authored the best selling book "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing- What Your Insurance Company Doesn't Want You to Know and Won't Tell You Until It's Too Late!" He can be reached at 1(888)CTLAW-00 or by visiting www.hcwlaw.com.