Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Death Not Compensable in Workers' Compensation Case Due to Independent Intervening Cause

April 10, 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that based on the testimony regarding Charles Kilburn’s death, his death is not compensable as a direct and natural consequence of his original compensable injury from a motor vehicle accident.

Mr. Kilburn was a trim carpenter when he sustained injuries to his neck and lower back in a motor vehicle accident during the course of his employment.  He received neck surgery and was prescribed pain medication for his lower back pain.  Mr. Kilburn’s death a little over a year later was due to acute oxycodone toxicity with contributing causes of hypertension, tobacco use, and alcohol use.

Following Mr. Kilburn’s death, his surviving spouse sought workers’ compensation death benefits asserting that his death was a direct and natural consequence of his original injuries.  The trial court concluded that the death was compensable.  The employer’s appeal was initially referred to a Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel, but the Tennessee Supreme Court later transferred the case to the full court for review.

In an analysis that was limited to the testimony presented in this case, the Court concluded that Mr. Kilburn’s overconsumption of his medication and use of alcohol while taking his medication in contravention of his physician’s instructions was an independent intervening cause, which rendered his death non-compensable.  

The Court explained that normally all the medical consequences that flow from an original compensable injury are compensable but that a subsequent injury is not compensable if it is the result of an independent intervening cause, such as the employee’s own conduct.  The Court noted that an independent intervening cause can be reckless or intentional misconduct or negligence.  The independent intervening cause in this case was due to the employee’s own conduct in refusing to take his medication in accordance with his physician’s instructions.

To read the Court’s unanimous opinion in Judy Kilburn v. Granite State Insurance Company, et al., authored by Justice Roger A. Page, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.