Hawaii: Employer Successfully Rebuts Presumption of Compensability Related to Chain-Smoking, Hypertensive Employee

In the determination of any contested workers’ compensation claim, Hawaii favors the claimant with a presumption of compensability [HRS § 386–85]. Construing that presumption, a state appellate court recently affirmed a decision of the Labor and Industrial Relations Board that concluded that the unwitnessed death of an employee was not work-related and that his surviving spouse was, therefore, not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits [Kaneshiro v. Diamond Head Petroleum, Inc., 2013 Haw. App. LEXIS 515 (Aug. 30, 2013)]. Kaneshiro worked as general manager of the employer. An employee found Kaneshio lying dead on the employer’s office floor at 5:00 a.m. one morning.  

Kaneshiro’s medical records indicated that he had a history of hypertension and high cholesterol and that he smoked about three packs of cigarettes a day. Some two years prior to his death, Kaneshiro was advised to stop smoking, improve his diet, exercise, and consider medication. For three days prior to his death, Kaneshiro complained of chest pains. He was encouraged to seek treatment for his condition, but refused. Kaneshiro also was not taking any medications. According to the Non-Autopsy Report filed by the First Deputy Medical Examiner, Kaneshiro’s cause of death was “[p]robable arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease[,]” with hypertension and hypercholesterolemia noted as “contributing cause/other significant conditions.” Kaneshiro’s death certificate identified “probable arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease” as the cause of death.

Claimant filed a dependents’ claim for compensation, contending in relevant part that Kaneshiro’s death was caused by work-related stress. The employer denied liability. After a hearing, the Director denied the claim. Subsequently, the LIRAB affirmed, observing that the employer had submitted as evidence the reports of multiple medical experts who opined that Kaneshiro’s death was caused by a long history of smoking, high blood pressure and a cholesterol abnormality, all of which had gone untreated. Both physicians opined that there was nothing in the workplace that had caused the death. The surviving spouse did not submit medical evidence, but relied upon the presumption of compensability.

The appellate court affirmed, concluding that the expert medical opinions concerning the cause of Kaneshiro’s death provided a sufficient degree of specificity to rebut the presumption of compensability. The court also concluded that the evidence as to causation presented by the parties was not of equal weight and effect, and thus the LIRAB did not err in reconciling the evidence presented in favor of employer.

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