Alcoholism that contributed to worker's death was related to workplace injury: Court

Court of Appeal upholds decision that worker’s back injury caused him to abuse alcohol, which led to a liver transplant that was a factor in his death

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has upheld a decision by the province’s Worker’s Compensation Appeals Tribunal that pain from a workplace injury was a factor in an alcoholic’s death.

Gerard O’Neill worked for the Cape Breton Development Corporation (CBDC), a crown corporation in Nova Scotia. He was assessed with having a permanent medical impairment by the Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Board as the result of a back injury he suffered at work in 1975.

O’Neill developed other medical conditions, including high cholesterol, diabetes and coronary artery disease. He also abused alcohol after his injury. In 2001, he submitted to the board he became an alcoholic to self-medicate himself against his back pain. He eventually underwent a liver and kidney transplant.

On May 17, 2004, O’Neill passed away at the age of 60, with coronary artery disease listed as the primary cause of death. It was also determined his transplants, though not the immediate cause of death, contributed to it.

O’Neill’s wife claimed survivor benefits under the Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Act, saying his death was the result of an injury arising out of his employment. Her claim was initially denied by the board but was approved by the appeal tribunal.

The tribunal referred to the test in assessing whether a workplace injury contributed to a worker’s death: “The compensable condition need not be the sole or even the predominant factor in a deceased worker’s death; it need only make a material contribution to the death.”

The tribunal used two medical reports that his transplant contributed to his death. The reports said the medication he took after his transplant increased his risk for organ or heart failure and the transplant was caused by his alcoholism. These reports, combined with Mrs. O’Neill’s testimony he wasn’t an alcoholic before his injury, led the tribunal to determine O’Neill’s injury “materially contributed to the occurrence or timing of his death” and his wife was entitled to survivor benefits.

CBDC appealed to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal, arguing the tribunal shouldn’t have ruled on the case without better medical evidence and as a result it wasn’t a reasonable ruling.

The court upheld the tribunal’s decision, finding the two medical reports provided sufficient evident there was a connection between O’Neill’s injury and his death. The fact he suffered from “severe ongoing pain” which caused him to abuse alcohol and led to his liver transplant combined with the medical reports were enough to establish a link. It also found the tribunal’s decision was within the range of acceptable outcomes and met the standard of reasonableness.

The appeal was dismissed and the award of survivor’s benefits was upheld.

“There is no legally mandated hierarchy in the type of evidence that may be used to determine causation before it can make its decision,” the court said. “The determination of causation is a matter of common sense.”

For more information see:

Cape Breton Development Corp. v. Nova Scotia Workers’ Compensation Appeals Tribunal, 2008 CarswellNS 407 (N.S. C.A.).

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