Friday, February 3, 2012

LA Case an Example of Causation vs. Presumption - Causation Wins

Causation is an interesting legal topic, in particular in the world of workers' compensation, because it is a fuzzy, gray area that is based on fictional borders for the purpose of defining liability.

Doctors, engineers, and others who assess causation from a more scientific view point, often have difficulty with legal causation - the logic associated with interpreting facts in accordance with the law sometimes takes twists and turns that aren't within a well defined formula.

Causation is a basic legal concept that is taught early in law school. The old "but for" argument is tirelessly used in the causation analysis: John Doe would not have suffered his injury but for the fact that he was on the job regardless of any other circumstance.

Such it is with the recently decided Louisiana case of Stenson v. Pat's of Henderson Seafood, No. 11-1148, 02/01/2012.

Deloris K. Stenson was employed as a server at Pat's of Henderson Seafood restaurant. On July 8, 2008, while working a lunch shift, she fell over a box of potatoes and broke her wrist.

Stenson went straight to the hospital after the accident, and pursuant to company policy, underwent a drug test. She tested positive for marijuana and Xanax.

Her employer and its insurer paid Stenson's hospital bill but refused to pay any other benefits due to the positive drug test.

The parties did not dispute that Stenson's injury had arisen out of her employment, but the restaurant and its insurer contended Stenson was not entitled to benefits because of the presence of Xanax and marijuana in her system at the time of the accident.

A workers' compensation judge, however, determined that the drugs were not a contributing cause to Stenson's fall because Stenson had a valid prescription for the drug to treat a preexisting back condition and had performed her job all morning without complaints from the customers or any other staff members, and that she had smoked marijuana four days prior to the accident.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals explained "the fact that a drug is prescribed to claimant does not preclude (it) from consideration in determining whether the claimant was intoxicated at the time of the accident," and that "a claimant can be found to be intoxicated by a drug for which he or she has a valid prescription."

But the Court of Appeals also ruled that while the law presumed Stenson to have been intoxicated and it was her burden to prove she was not, she overcame the presumption with her work on the day of the accident and the remoteness in time between marijuana consumption and the accident.

Which is why I am not a big proponent of presumptions, particularly in statutory schemes like workers' compensation - presumptions in my opinion tend to promote needless litigation. The question the courts really were asking in this case was, "would Stenson have been injured but for falling over a box of potatoes at work."

The answer to the court was "no". This would have been the same result without the presumption.workers compensation, work comp, injured worker 

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