Liability for Death Benefits Requires Only Minimal Industrial Contribution
Irfan Khan (Deceased), Natalia Hahn (Widow), Brianna Reiman, Brandon Reiman (Dependents) 2022 Cal. Wrk. Comp. P.D. LEXIS 91
In the Khan case, the decedent Irfan Khan was employed as an administrative assistant in the tax department by Deloitte Tax, LLP for 18 years. Mr. Khan separated from employment in 2013. Mr. Kahn passed away on February 3, 2016, over 2 years from his last date of employment. The cause of death was coronary in nature and resulted from aggravations of hypertension and heart disease. His widow and children brought a claim for death benefits alleging his death was partly due to the stress and strain of employment with Deloitte Tax, LLP.
Evidence at trial revealed that his work with Deloitte Tax, LLP required long hours of work in a stressful work environment involving tax work for large clients. He worked weekends. He had to work under four different supervisors. He had to cover for his supervisor from May 2012 to February 2013 while he was out on disability. The overall work environment was characterized by demanding and stressful work.
However, on the non-industrial side, medical records generated between his separation from employment in 2013 and his death in 2016 document that the employee smoked regularly and used alcohol to excess despite stomach, esophageal and heart disease. Mr. Khan’s self-destructive behavior was despite medical advice to refrain from the use of cigarettes and alcohol. The evidence supported a conclusion that the decedent’s end of employment (and onset of disability) was a direct result of the ravages of alcoholism.
There was testimony that the decedent’s marriage was stressful. In fact, all the employer’s witnesses suggested that the marriage was not going well and that his wife had assaulted the decedent.
Dr. Harvey Alpern acted as the QME in internal medicine. Dr. Alpern concluded that to a reasonable medical probability, the deceased suffered an industrial aggravation of his underlying hypertension and coronary artery disease as a result of stress from work. Psychiatric QME Joshua Pretsky agreed with this conclusion.
After trial, the WCJ adopted the opinions of Dr. Alpern and Dr. Pretzky fiding that the stress from work aggravated his hypertension and coronary artery disease thereby hastening his death. Defendant appealed the decision taking the position that the medical opinions did not constitute substantial evidence. The WCAB commissioners upheld the WCJ’s determination.
While the opinion on the case does not specifically address it, it is apparent that the court recognized the standard to trigger industrial compensability is minimal. The Khan case involved significant non-industrial factors and a death occurring almost 3 years after the last date of employment. However, since death benefits are not subject to apportionment the extent of industrial contribution is minimal to trigger compensability. The California Supreme Court has held that in death cases the applicable causation standard of proof is whether the workplace exposure to the coronavirus merely “contributed” to the applicant’s death, and this will be sufficient to establish the death as compensable (see South Coast Framing, Inc. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Board (2015) 61 Cal.4th 291).