TALLAHASSEE – The First District Court of Appeals has reversed a ruling of the Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) in a suit over a man's 2015 death from meningitis, ruling that the claimants failed to satisfy a burden of proof.
Judge M. Kemmerly Thomas ruled Nov. 27 that the Judge of Compensation Claims improperly applied the statutory provisions regarding the burden of proof in the case between the School District of Indian River County/Ascension Benefits Insurance and Solutions of Florida Employers Mutual and Edward Cruce, deceased, and his widow Nove Cruce and their children.
The decedent, Edward Cruce, worked as a groundskeeper for the employer from 1989 to 2015. The opinion states in 2014, he was asked to move some materials from a storage shed to another area in a maintenance building, and cleaned an area containing dead birds, live bats and rodents.
The opinion states Edward Cruce came home on several days covered in a white dust and in November 2014 began to complain of headaches. Cruce was hospitalized in mid-December 2014 and a spinal tap showed that he was suffering from a fungal infection. Cruce died on Jan. 10, 2015, of cryptococcal meningitis.
Roughly two years after his death, Nove Cruce and their two children filed for death benefits, reimbursement of medical expenses and funeral costs. The School District of Indian River County/Ascension Benefits Insurance and Solutions of Florida Employers Mutual challenged the order.
"In awarding compensability, the JCC determined that claimants had presented clear and convincing evidence, as required by sections 440.02(1) and 440.09(1), of repetitive or prolonged exposure in the form of a single dose exposure at work sufficient to satisfy their burden of proof," Kemmerly Thomas wrote. "The JCC found satisfactory evidence that the employee was exposed to pigeons and their droppings at the stadium worksite. However, he noted that '[i]t cannot be determined exactly when or where [the employee] inhaled the fungus, the amount he inhaled or whether such inhalation was on one or more occasions.'
"Notwithstanding the plain language of sections 440.02(1) and 440.09(1), the JCC excused claimants from the required burden of proof to overcome the presumption that injury or disease caused by exposure to a toxic substance is not an injury by accident arising out of the employment," Kemmerly Thomas wrote. "Furthermore, competent substantial evidence does not support the JCC’s determination that claimants satisfied, by clear and convincing evidence, their burden of proving occupational causation."