WORKERS' COMPENSATION: STANDARD OF PROOF - HARRIS V. RUSSELL PETROLEUM CORP.
In Harris v. Russell Petroleum Corp., [Ms. 2090243, Aug. 6, 2010],__So. 3d __(Ala. Civ. App. 2010), the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reversed a trial court's ruling on worker's compensation death benefits on the grounds that the trial court used the wrong burden of proof. Eddie Harris, an employee of the Russell Petroleum Corporation, suffered a series of knee injuries as a result of work-related accidents. In 2008, Mr. Harris underwent bilateral knee replacement surgery. The next day, Mr. Harris suffered a stroke that led to his death. The Court held that "[i]f the worker asserts that the original compensable injury caused the worker to suffer a later sudden, traumatic injury, it follows that the clear-and-convincing evidence standard would not apply to that claim." Because the Court held the stroke to be a "sudden traumatic injury," it held that the trial court's application of the clear and convincing evidence standard was reversible error. In addition, the Court reviewed the trial court's conclusion that the dependent had not proven that the surgery caused the stroke. The trial court based its conclusion on testimony from two witnesses who said they could not say "with a reasonable degree of medical certainty" that the two events were related. The Court held that "in order for the dependent to prove medical causation, the evidence, when viewed as a whole, must show that there is more than a mere possibility that the knee-replacement surgery caused the employee's stroke." In other words, the standard for medical causation is "more likely than not." The Court held that to the extent the trial court relied only on the witnesses' statements, "we remind the trial court that on remand it should look to the totality of the evidence in determining whether the dependent has proven medical causation in this case."