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Can I Collect Workers’ Compensation If I Become Addicted to Pain Medication?


Opioid addiction has become a major public health problem in Tennessee. According to the Knox County District Attorney’s office, there were 237 deaths attributed to opioid overdose in 2016, a significant increase from 170 fatalities in 2015. Most opioid deaths are the result of abusing prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone or oxycodone.

Tragically, some opioid-related deaths start with a workplace accident. An employee is prescribed pain medication following an injury and quickly becomes addicted to the powerful opioids. Without adequate pain management, the patient may accidentally overdose and die.

TN Supreme Court Rules Against Widow in Overdose Case

If an employee dies as the result of an overdose, can the employer be held liable under workers’ compensation law? The Tennessee Supreme Court recently considered that question. Specifically, the Court reviewed a judge’s decision to award death benefits to the deceased worker’s widow.

The employee in this case was a carpenter seriously injured in a car accident that occurred in the course of his employment. Such injuries are compensable under Tennessee workers’ compensation law. Accordingly, the employer and its insurer paid for the employee’s spinal surgery.

Even after the surgery, the employee continued to experience significant back pain. Although his physician recommended an additional surgical procedure, the employer’s insurance company declined coverage. The doctor then referred the employee to a pain management clinic, where he was prescribed oxycodone.

One morning, the employee’s wife found him lying in bed unresponsive. He had passed away. A medical examiner’s examination determined death was due to an accidental overdose of oxycodone, with hypertension and alcohol and tobacco use cited as contributing factors.

The wife sought death benefits under workers’ compensation, alleging the overdose was a “direct and natural consequence of his workplace injury.” A judge agreed and ordered the employer to pay additional benefits. The employer then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court sided with the employer and reversed the trial judge’s decision. The Court said the employee died because he “failed to take his pain medication in accordance with his physician’s instructions.” Specifically, the employee took a higher dosage than prescribed and also consumed alcohol. These actions “terminated the causal link between” the employee’s work-related injury and his death, the Court held.

The Court was careful to state, in a footnote to its decision, that its ruling was based on the specific facts of this case. The Court said its decision here should not be interpreted as a general statement that a deceased employee’s family “can never prove that an overdose is the direct and natural result of the original compensable injury when a dependency or addiction to narcotics develops.” In other words, an employer may be liable for an employee’s overdose death, but Tennessee courts will strictly scrutinize an employee’s actions–particularly his or her ability to follow their prescription–in deciding whether to award workers’ compensation benefits.

Speak With a Tennessee Personal Injury Lawyer Today

Even where opioid addiction does not lead to overdose or death, it can seriously impair a person’s ability to function. If you or a loved one have developed an opioid dependency or addiction following an accident caused at work or by someone else’s negligence, you should speak with a qualified Knoxville personal injury attorney to discuss your legal options. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, to schedule a consultation with one of our lawyers today.




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