Can A Death Claim Arise When An Employee Dies From An Overdose Of Medication Prescribed To Treat A Work-Related Injury?

Donald G. Drinko By Donald G. Drinko, Gary D. Baker Jr.

Dependents of employees who die as the result of a work-related injury or occupational disease are normally entitled to death benefits. However, this does not apply in cases where the employee’s death is purposely self-inflicted, or caused by the employee being intoxicated, under the influence of non-prescribed controlled substances, or under the influence of marijuana. See R.C. §4123.54(A). But, what if the employee’s death is caused by an overdose of a medication prescribed to treat a work injury? Would the employee’s dependents be entitled to death benefits?

The answer is based upon intent, i.e: whether the decedent intended to take the amount he took, and not with the intent to commit suicide.  The Second District Court of Appeals addressed this issue in Osborn v. Bur. of Workers’ Comp., 134 Ohio App.3d 645, 731 N.E.2d 1189 (2nd Dist.1999). Osborn involved a widow’s claim for death benefits after her husband overdosed on a prescribed morphine derivative he began taking after left elbow surgery to treat his work-related cubital tunnel syndrome. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor the employer, finding that the employee’s death was self-inflicted based on him intentionally exceeding the prescribe dosage. The Second District Court of Appeals overturned this judgment, holding that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employee intended the take the overdose amount or took the increased amount accidentally.

Similarly, the Third District considered a similar situation  in Parker v. Honda of Am. Mfg., Inc., 3rd Dist. Union No. 14-09-27, 2009-Ohio-6866 (Dec. 28, 2009) addressing a case where a widow was denied death benefits after her husband overdosed on prescription OxyContin he began taking after a work-related back injury. The employee became addicted to the prescribed OxyContin and died as the result of an overdose after he melted down and injected a lethal concentration of the prescribed drug. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, finding that the employee’s death was purposely self-inflicted based on him voluntarily melting and injecting the drug. The Third District upheld this judgment finding that there was no evidence the employee accidentally took the more than the recommended dosage, and therefore no genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether he intentionally took the fatal dose.

In this age of pharmacy reviews, the prescription of pain medication is much more controlled. However, employers should be aware that dependents could be entitled to death benefits if an employee took a fatal dose accidentally. If you would like to submit a question to Shop talk, or would like to discuss this or any other workers’ compensation issues, please feel free to contact me or my associate Gary Baker.