California Court of Appeal Holds Reasonable Inference Supports Finding that Employee’s Death Arose Out of and in the Course of Employment

In a recent case, the California Court of Appeal addressed whether an injury that led to an employee’s death occurred in the course and scope of his employment.  The court here examined the weight of circumstantial evidence, particularly in light of the fact that proving industrial causation is difficult in the case of a death.  Inferences must be reasonable, but the court stated it is not required that the plaintiff show an inference in his favor is the only one that may be reasonably drawn from the evidence.

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Carlos Ivan Rodas, age 32, worked as a dishwasher at Guidos Restaurant. Mr. Rodas died from a pulmonary hemorrhage while taking out the trash at work.  He had been wheeling an overflowing trashcan on a dolly to the dumpster. Mr. Rodas’ family retained an internal medicine doctor to opine on the cause of Mr. Rodas’ death.  Dr. Ronald Zlotolow, M.D., opined that coughing, brought on by the trash odors, or the lifting of heavy garbage, caused Mr. Rodas’ bleeding.

The Workers’ Compensation Judge found that Mr. Rodas suffered his injury arising out of and in the course of his employment.  She based her decision on the medical opinion that heavy lifting and garbage fumes likely caused Mr. Rodas to cough and bleed.  Guido’s then petitioned for reconsideration on the grounds that Dr. Zlotolow’s opinion was not substantial medical evidence, and it was based on conjecture and speculation.

While the Worker’s Compensation Judge recommended the petition be denied, the appeals board concluded that Mr. Rodas did not suffer any injury arising out of and occurring in the course of employment. The California Court of Appeal noted that the dissent found it unreasonable to assume that Mr. Rodas’ work did not play a role in triggering his sudden hemorrhaging.

On appeal, the appellate court stated liability exists against an employer for employees who have suffered injuries arising out of and in the course of their employment. “In the course of employment” refers to the time, place, and circumstances of the sustained injury.  The court stated that in this case, Mr. Rodas’ death  occurred during work hours while taking the trash to the dumpster.

In terms of the requirement that the work injury be proximately caused by employment, the court stated that the aggravation of a pre-existing condition is an injury in the occupation.  Here, the court stated it was undisputed that Mr. Rodas had tuberculosis and that the bleeding occurred because of pressure on his compromised arteries.  Here, the question was what caused the pressure on his arteries that led to his death.

The appellate court stated that circumstantial evidence was the only available evidence.  Dr. Zlotolow gave answers to the question of what caused the pressure on Mr. Rodas’ arteries.  The court also stated that circumstantial evidence is sufficient to support an award, and it can be based on reasonable inferences.

Inferences, according to the appellate court, are deductions of fact that can be reasonably drawn from other facts.  Here, Dr. Zlotolow drew inferences that the pressure was caused by coughing in reaction to trash odors, or from lifting the garbage.  The facts underlying these inferences were based on Mr. Rodas’ location near the dumpster and the odors of the trash.  The court stated it was undisputed that Mr. Rodas physically exerted himself as he took out the trash on the dolly.

The court looked at the facts underlying the inference.  The garbage emitted odors, and Mr. Rodas exerted himself in pushing the dolly toward the dumpster.  Dr. Zlotolow’s inferences were “reasonable” as validated by common experience.

Additionally, the court stated that a plaintiff does not need to show an inference in his favor is the only one that can be drawn from the evidence.  While there may be another medical expert who opines that the bleeding that led to Mr. Rodas’ death was spontaneous, not due to coughing from trash odors or physical exertion, this does not negate the reasonableness of Dr. Zlotolow’s inference.

Regarding the difficulty in proving industrial causation for a death occurring at work, the court stated that reasonable doubts regarding whether an injury is compensable are to be resolved in favor of the employee.  This reflects the policy that workers’ compensation laws are to be construed with the purpose of protecting injured employees.

In conclusion, the appellate court stated that based on the expert medical testimony of Dr. Zlotolow, the injury that led to Mr. Rodas’ death arose out of and in the course of his employment.  The matter was remanded to the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board for further proceedings.

The attorneys at Sharifi Firm represent clients in both workers’ compensation and personal injury claims. Contact our office today for a free consultation by calling 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Supreme Court Clarifies Appropriate Standard of Causation in Workers’ Compensation Death Case as Contributing, not Substantial Factor, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 5, 2015

California Court Rejects Report from Expert Retained Solely to Rebut Opinion of Agreed Medical Expert, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, November 6, 2015

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