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Unwitnessed Deaths: Trial Presumptions

New York workers who die on the job are entitled to a presumption that the death was “work-related” where the death is unwitnessed or unexplained (Workers’ Compensation Law, §21). This section of the statute is meant to encourage employer vigilance regarding employees in dangerous circumstances and encourage proper supervision.

In Frederick v. Lindenhurst, decided October 8, 2009, the Appellate Court reviewed a case where an employee custodian was found dead in the school’s boiler room. An autopsy was performed. According to the autopsy report, the death was attributed to arteriosclerotic heart disease. This disease is frequently referred to as ‘hardening of the arteries’ and comes from a buildup of fatty plaque on the walls of the main arteries. This disease is not ‘peculiar’ to any employment.

Both the autopsy report and the death certificate found that the decedent’s cause of death was arteriosclerotic heart disease. The employer disputed that the death was related, and the WCB agreed. The decedent’s dependent’s appealed.

The Appellate Panel found that “substantial evidence” will rebut the presumption that unwitnessed deaths are related tot he employment. In this case, the cause of death was known: arteriosclerotic heart disease. The Appellate Division stated that absent any medical evidence that would call that conclusion into question or otherwise suggest that the decedent’s work and his death were causally linked, the opinion of the WCB must stand. The Appellate Panel repeated the case law that instructs that the employer doe snot have to rebut or meet every allegation presented by the dependents in order to overcome the assumption: in other words, if the claimant alleges that the ‘heat’ of the boiler-room, plus the claimant’s work effort, ‘combined’ to cause his cardiac condition to erupt, the employer doe snot have to meet each theory separately in order to overcome the presumption of compensability, just offer a medically-sound evidence of contrary causation.

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