Workers’ compensation carriers in North Carolina continue to be bound by a 44-year-old presumption that a death during work duties is work-related, even when a doctor testifies that a heart condition was the cause of death.
“The Pickrell presumption is difficult to rebut in North Carolina,” said Winston-Salem attorney Barbara Ruark, who represented Carolina Mutual Insurance Co. in the appeal.
Ruark was referring to a 1988 North Carolina Supreme Court decision, Pickrell vs. Motor Convoy Inc., in which the court laid down the rule that if a death occurs within the course of employment, the worker’s death is compensable in most circumstances.
This week, in Frye vs. Hamrock and Carolina Mutual, the North Carolina Court of Appeals relied on Pickrell and found that the employer/carrier must pay the maximum allowed by the state’s workers’ comp statute: 500 weeks of death benefits to the family of deceased dump-truck driver Toney Frye, along with $10,000 in funeral expenses and payment of some medical bills incurred at the scene. North Carolina law allows two-thirds of the worker’s average weekly wages to go to dependents, up to a maximum of $1,184.
“We had hoped for a different outcome, but we’ll stand by the appeals court’s decision,” Ruark said Thursday.
The insurer’s expert, Dr. Brent Hall, performed an autopsy after the accident and concluded that the cause of death was heart disease, not usually a compensable condition for a truck driver. But the state’s Industrial Commission and the appeals court said evidence suggests that losing control of the asphalt-filled truck on a steep mountain curve precipitated Frye’s heart attack.
“In his deposition, Dr. Hall testified that a ‘stressful event’ such as losing control of a speeding truck ‘could predispose one to a heart attack,’” reads the court’s Sept. 20 opinion, written by Judge Valerie Zachary.
And the Pickrell presumption can apply, whether the medical cause is known or unknown, the court noted.
The tragedy happened in 2017. Frye, 55, was driving the dump truck down Highway 226 in western North Carolina, a road notorious for accidents, the court said. News reports in recent years show multiple crashes on the stretch of road. Frye’s truck crossed into the other lane and collided with an oncoming vehicle, killing a passenger in the car.
A special agent with the state Bureau of Investigation happened to see Frye barreling down the mountain and testified that he appeared to be alert, with a cigarette in his hand. Heavy smoke was coming from the rear brakes, suggesting that, at that moment, Frye had not yet suffered the heart attack and was trying to slow the truck. A state trooper also testified that the tire tracks at the scene showed that Frye was trying to control the truck and had been applying the brakes.
And an emergency worker and a medical examiner said that the truck landed on its side and the top of the cab had pinned the driver against the steering wheel, leaving him with significant trauma to his head and back. The death certificate indicated the immediate cause of the death was trauma from the collision.
Despite that, the insurer argued that its requested autopsy from Dr. Hall rebutted the presumption. The carrier also noted that case law has some nuances to it. First, the Pickrell decision states that the presumption applies when the worker is “found dead” by co-workers. It’s not exactly clear the moment Frye died. Emergency crews worked for more than 20 minutes to free him from the wreckage, and co-workers were not the ones who found him, Carolina Mutual explained in court filings.
The appeals court said the insurer was construing Pickrell too narrowly on that point.
The court also explained that, yes, a 2006 state Supreme Court ruling held that a claimant was not entitled to the Pickrell presumption because the worker had died from a brain hemorrhage, a non-compensable condition. But a heart attack is different, especially if the cardiac arrest is the result of an accident or “extraordinary exertion or extreme conditions,” such as Toney Frye may have experienced inside the runaway truck, the court said.
“Neither the record in this case nor the binding findings of fact support defendants’ argument that ‘the only credible evidence in this case establishes that [decedent] was already deceased at the time of the actual collision’ or that ‘the heart attack precipitated [decedent]’s loss of control of the vehicle,’” the Frye opinion noted. “Therefore, defendants have failed to meet their burden of showing that [decedent’s heart attack] occurred prior to and caused [his] injury by accident.”
Ruark said that at this time Carolina Mutual has no plans to appeal.
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