ALJ's misapplication of unexplained death presumption warrants remand
Case name: Wilkinson County Board of Education, et al. v. Johnson, No. A12A0996 (Ga. Ct. App. 09/06/12).
Ruling: The Georgia Court of Appeals held that the administrative law judge misapplied the law in determining whether a widow was entitled to a presumption that her husband's death arose out of his employment. The court sent the case back to the ALJ for further consideration.
What it means: In Georgia, the unexplained death presumption can arise when the worker becomes ill at his place of employment and later dies from the illness at the hospital.
Summary: A principal for a high school had a history of hypertension, obesity, renal insufficiency, and gout. The principal and a school volunteer traveled to a hospital to inspect and transport computers that were being donated to the school. The principal had to walk 300 yards to a warehouse where the computers were stored and back 300 yards to his truck. During the drive back to the school, the principal was driving erratically and sweating profusely. When he arrived back at the school, the school nurse determined that his blood pressure was elevated and called an ambulance. A CT scan revealed that he suffered an acute aortic dissection. He underwent emergency surgery. Within a few days, he began suffering from metabolic acidosis from his weakened kidneys. He went into abrupt respiratory arrest and died. His widow sought benefits. The ALJ denied the claim. The Georgia Court of Appeals held that the ALJ misapplied the law in determining whether a presumption that the principal's death arose out of his employment applied.
The court explained that when a worker is found dead in a place where he might reasonably be expected to be in the performance of his duties, it is presumed that the death arose out of his employment. The presumption "arises only where the death is unexplained." Here, the ALJ held that the unexplained death presumption did not arise because the principal died at the hospital and therefore was not found dead in a place where he could reasonably be expected to be in the performance of his job duties. This was an error because the unexplained death presumption can apply when the worker became ill at his place of employment and died from the illness in the hospital.
In this case, the ALJ did not make a specific finding as to the precipitating cause of the principal's death or whether it was explained. The court sent the case back to the ALJ for further consideration.
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November 15, 2012
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