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James M. Straub

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Michigan Supreme Court Overrules Substantial Factor Test for Determining Worker’s Compensation Death Dependency Benefits

The Michigan Supreme Court recently overruled the "substantial factor" test for determining worker’s compensation death dependency benefits set forth in Hagerman v Gencorp Automotive, 457 Mich 720; 579 NW2d 347 (1998). Paige v Sterling Heights, ___ Mich ___; ___ NW2d ___ (2006); 2006 WL 2129832. The Paige decision means that claimants seeking death dependency benefits under the Worker’s Compensation Disability Act must show that the work-related injury suffered by the deceased employee was the sole cause of that employee’s death, not merely a "substantial factor" among other factors.

Issues in Paige

Faced with the issue whether, for purposes of death dependency benefits, a work-related injury was "the proximate cause" of an employee’s death many years later, the Supreme Court in Paige held that Hagerman incorrectly construed the phrase "the proximate cause" to mean "‘a proximate cause’ that is a substantial factor in causing the event." In overruling Hagerman, the Supreme Court held that the phrase, "the proximate cause," as used in the section of the Worker’s Disability Compensation Act providing for death dependency benefits, means "the sole proximate cause, i.e., ‘the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause of the injury or damage.’"

The Court in Paige also addressed the issue of when, in the circumstance of a parent-employee’s death, a child of that person is entitled to a presumption of whole dependency. The Court held that, under MCL 418.375(2) and MCL 418.341, a child is entitled to the presumption of whole dependency only if he or she was under the age of 16 at the time of the parent-employee’s death.

Randall Paige worked as a firefighter for the city of Sterling Heights and was sent to the scene of an automobile accident on October 12, 1991. After Paige extracted a three-year-old girl from an automobile and carried her to an ambulance, he began to experience an ache in his right arm. Approximately thirty minutes later, while in the fire station completing a report of the accident, Paige again experienced pain in his right arm. The pain was accompanied by chest pains and profuse sweating. Paige was taken to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with having suffered a myocardial infarction. Paige did not return to work after that incident, and in 1993 was granted an open award of workers’ compensation benefits.

Paige suffered a second myocardial infarction on August 15, 2000. He underwent a quadruple coronary bypass on August 21, 2000, after having been diagnosed with coronary artery disease. Paige died in his sleep on January 4, 2001. An autopsy report noted that Paige suffered from occlusions of the left anterior descending coronary artery, right coronary artery, and four coronary bypass grafts. The forensic pathologist opined that Paige died of a heart attack. Paige’s treating cardiologist identified the immediate cause of Paige’s death as acute myocardial infarction and noted that coronary artery disease was an underlying cause that existed for years before Paige’s death and led to the immediate cause of death.

Paige’s son Adam, who was eight years old when Paige suffered his first heart attack and seventeen when Paige died, filed a claim for worker’s compensation death dependency benefits pursuant to MCL 418.375(2). Under that statute, a child of a deceased employee is entitled to death dependency benefits if the injury received by the deceased employee "was the proximate cause of his or her death" and the child was "wholly or partially dependent" on the deceased employee for support. Adam claimed that, as a minor, he had been dependent on his father for support. He further claimed that his father’s work-related heart attack in 1991 contributed to his father’s death by weakening his heart and therefore, under Hagerman, constituted "the proximate" cause of his father’s death.

The Supreme Court in Paige determined that Hagerman was wrongly decided and overruled it, holding that in order for an employer to be liable for death benefits under MCL 418.375(2), the deceased employee’s work-related injury must have been "‘the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause preceding [the death].’" The Court remanded the case to the Worker’s Compensation Appellate Commission (WCAC) for a determination whether Randall Paige’s work-related injury was "the proximate cause" of his death under that standard.

Continuing its analysis, the Court stated that, if a work-related injury qualified as "the proximate cause" of the employee’s death under the above stated definition, the next inquiry under MCL 418.375(2) is whether the employee left dependents, and, if so, whether those dependents were "wholly or partially dependent" upon the employee for support. The Court concluded, based upon MCL 418.341, that whether there were dependents and the extent of any such dependency are to be determined by looking at the circumstances at the time of the work-related injury–not at the time of death. The Court rejected the WCAC’s conclusion that Adam Paige, who was under age 16 at the time of his father’s injury but over the age of 16 at the time of his father’s death, was entitled to a conclusive presumption of whole dependency pursuant to MCL 418.331. The Supreme Court held that, if the WCAC determined on remand that Randall Paige’s work-related injury was a proximate cause of his death, the WCAC was to further determine the extent of Adam Paige’s dependency at the time Randall Page suffered the work-related injury.

 

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