Birnie v. Electric Boat Corp.

Decision Date19 August 2008
Docket NumberNo. 17764.,17764.
Citation288 Conn. 392,953 A.2d 28
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Peter D. Quay, for the appellant (defendant).

Amy M. Stone, with whom was Frank Eppinger, Groton, for the appellee (plaintiff).

Lucas D. Strunk, Glastonbury, filed a brief for ACE USA and Travelers Corporation as amici curiae.



In this workers' compensation appeal, we are presented with the question, which was raised but not decided in Lafayette v. General Dynamics Corp., 255 Conn. 762, 781, 770 A.2d 1(2001), of whether the causation standard applied by a United States Department of Labor administrative law judge (administrative law judge) in a prior proceeding brought under the federal Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act (Longshore Act); 33 U.S.C. § 901 et seq.; is less stringent than the "substantial factor" causation standard utilized in cases brought under the state Workers' Compensation Act (state act); General Statutes § 31-275 et seq.; such that the relitigation of causation under the state act is barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel. The defendant, Electric Boat Corporation, appeals1 from the decision of the compensation review board (board) affirming the decision of the workers' compensation commissioner for the second district (commissioner), awarding survivor benefits to the plaintiff, Jean Birnie, based on the commissioner's conclusion that the defendant is collaterally estopped from relitigating the issue of causation because that issue was actually litigated and necessarily determined in a previous Longshore Act proceeding. On appeal, the defendant claims that the "contributing factor" causation standard that had been applied in the Longshore Act proceeding is "significantly less strenuous" than the "substantial factor" standard utilized under the state act, and, therefore, it should not have been collaterally estopped from litigating the issue of causation in the state action.2 We conclude that the application of collateral estoppel was improper in this case because the decision of the administrative law judge in the Long-shore Act proceeding does not articulate clearly the scope of the contributing factor standard he had applied, and there is no basis, therefore, to conduct an adequate comparison of the contributing factor and the substantial factor causation standards. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of board.

The record reveals the following relevant undisputed facts and procedural history. The plaintiff's husband, James Birnie (decedent), worked for the defendant from 1980 until his death on June 9, 2001, when he suffered a fatal myocardial infarction, or heart attack, in the defendant's fitness center. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a timely claim for death benefits under the federal Longshore Act,3 asserting, inter alia, that: (1) the decedent's exposure to industrial irritants and asbestos, while working for the defendant, contributed to the development of his lung disease; and (2) that lung disease contributed to the decedent having suffered the myocardial infarction that had resulted in his death. In response, the defendant claimed, inter alia, that the evidence had failed to establish that the decedent's death was "caused, hastened, or accelerated by his workplace exposures."

On February 13, 2003, a formal hearing was held before the administrative law judge at which both the plaintiff and the defendant were represented by counsel and had the opportunity to present evidence and oral argument. On the basis of the uncontradicted testimony of a former employee of the defendant, offered by the plaintiff, the administrative law judge found that the decedent had been exposed to dust, fumes, smoke and asbestos during his employment with the defendant. The plaintiff also offered into evidence a report and deposition transcript of John P. Bigos, "a board-certified pulmonary specialist, who examined [the decedent] approximately four times in 1996 through 1998...." Bigos determined that the decedent had suffered pleural thickening in his chest that was related to workplace asbestos exposure at the defendant's facilities, and had diagnosed the decedent "with combined obstructive/restrictive lung disease, with general industrial irritants and smoking contributing to the obstructive impairment and industrial asbestos exposure contributing to the restrictive impairment." In addition, Bigos "provided an opinion letter dated August 23, 2002, [concluding] that [the decedent's] exposure to industrial irritants contributed to his obstructive and restrictive lung disease that was a significant factor in limiting his ability to engage in any meaningful exertion which contributed to his deconditioned state and consequently his cardiac problems and ultimate death." Bigos explained that the conclusions proffered in his opinion letter were based on his clinical examination, the decedent's medical and occupational history, and radiological and laboratory findings.

On the basis of the foregoing evidence, the administrative law judge concluded that the plaintiff had established a prima facie case of compensability under the so-called § 20(a) presumption of the Longshore Act.4 See 33 U.S.C. § 920(a).5 The administrative law judge further concluded, however, that the defendant successfully had rebutted the § 20(a) presumption with substantial evidence, because the defendant's "board-certified pulmonary expert, [Thomas] Godar ... unequivocally testified that [the decedent's] death was not caused, hastened, or accelerated by his industrial exposures" at the defendant's facilities. Thus, the administrative law judge examined the entire record to determine whether the plaintiff had shown, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the decedent's myocardial infarction and death were causally related to his work with the defendant. After evaluating the contradictory medical evidence proffered by the parties, the administrative law judge credited the opinion of Bigos over that of Godar, and "conclude[d] that [the decedent's] exposure to asbestos and other industrial irritants at [the defendant's facilities] were a contributing factor in his myocardial infarction and death." In accordance with his factual findings and conclusions of law, the administrative law judge then awarded benefits to the plaintiff, pursuant to 33 U.S.C. § 909.6

Thereafter, the defendant appealed from the decision of the administrative law judge to the United States Department of Labor benefits review board. On June 22, 2004, the benefits review board affirmed the decision of the administrative law judge, concluding that: (1) the administrative law judge "rationally weighed and credited the medical opinions"; and (2) the opinion of Bigos constituted substantial evidence supporting the administrative law judge's decision.

In addition to filing for benefits under the Longshore Act, the plaintiff also filed for survivor's benefits under the state act, pursuant to General Statutes § 31-306.7


formal hearing was held before the commissioner on March 29, 2005, which was continued on April 19, 2005. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant was barred from relitigating the issue of causation, under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, because the issue was fully litigated and necessarily determined in the Longshore Act proceeding, and because she had the same burden of proof under the state act as she did under the Long-shore Act.8 In response, the defendant claimed that collateral estoppel did not apply because the administrative law judge had utilized a more relaxed standard of causation than is required under the state act.

On May 6, 2005, the commissioner issued a decision concluding that "[t]he issue of causation or compensability was actually litigated and necessarily determined as the [decision of the administrative law judge] could not have been validly rendered without such determination." The commissioner recognized that the administrative law judge "applied a standard which only required that the decedent's workplace exposures were a contributing factor in his myocardial infarction and death," and then, without discussion of the requisite causation standard under the state act, concluded: "While the standard the [a]dministrative [l]aw [j]udge utilized was a more relaxed standard, the evidence which supports the June 9, 2003 decision and which was found to be the more persuasive evidence, also satisfied the standard applied in the ... [s]tate [w]orkers' [c]ompensation proceedings, and accordingly, the issue of causation or compensability was fully and fairly litigated in the federal action pursuant to the Longshore ... Act." (Emphasis added.) Thus, the commissioner concluded that the defendant is "collaterally estopped from disput[ing] liab[ility] for payment of widow's benefits [to the plaintiff]."

The defendant appealed from the decision of the commissioner to the board, arguing that the causation standard applied by the administrative law judge under the Longshore Act — namely, that the employment must be a contributing factor in producing the injury — is less onerous than the standard under the state act, which requires that the employment be a substantial factor in producing the injury. The defendant further claimed that the lower causation standard under the Longshore Act precludes the application of collateral estoppel in a subsequent state action, and that the commissioner, therefore, improperly barred the defendant from litigating whether the decedent's employment was a substantial contributing factor in his myocardial infarction and death. The board did not, however, examine whether the causation standards differ between the Longshore Act and the state act, but rather concluded that the commissioner properly had determined that the evidence in the record was sufficient to meet...

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  • Sapko v. State , No. 18680.
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • June 12, 2012
    ...We also reject the plaintiff's claim that the commissioner's finding is incompatible with our statement in Birnie v. Electric Boat Corp., 288 Conn. 392, 953 A.2d 28 (2008), that an injured employee is entitled to recovery under the act if he can demonstrate that his employment contributed t......
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    ...injurious force [that] immediately produced (or preceded) the damage." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Birnie v. Electric Boat Corp. , 288 Conn. 392, 411, 953 A.2d 28 (2008) ; see also Paige v. St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Church Corp. , 250 Conn. 14, 25, 734 A.2d 85 (1999) ("[r]emote or......
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    ...her tortious interference with the right of inheritance claim is a fair preponderance of the evidence. See Birnie v. Electric Boat Corp. , 288 Conn. 392, 406, 953 A.2d 28 (2008) ("[t]he application of the collateral estoppel doctrine may not be proper when the burden of proof ... differ[s] ......
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4 books & journal articles
  • A Shifting Paradigm? Deschenes v. Transco and the Precarious New Landscape of Concurrently Developing Disease in Connecticut's Workers' Compensation Jurisprudence
    • United States
    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 84, December 2010
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    ...Claimant's Exhibit E. 116. Id. 117. 204 Conn. 104, 118, 527 A.2d 664 (1987). 118. 279 Conn. 239, 245, 902 A.2d 620 (2006). 119. 288 Conn. 392, 953 A.2d 28 (2008). 120. 112 Conn. 421, 152 A.2d 399 (1930). 121. 288 Conn. at 411-12 (alterations in original). 122. Id. at 412. 123. Id. 124. Id. ......
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    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 86, December 2012
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    • Connecticut Bar Association Connecticut Bar Journal No. 84, December 2010
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