Hagerman v. Gencorp Automotive, Docket No. 107059

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Writing for the CourtBOYLE; MALLETT, C.J., and MICHAEL F. CAVANAGH and MARILYN J. KELLY, JJ., concurred with BOYLE; TAYLOR; BRICKLEY and WEAVER, JJ., concurred with TAYLOR
Citation579 N.W.2d 347,457 Mich. 720
PartiesMarian HAGERMAN, In Her Own Behalf And On Behalf of Keith Hagerman, Deceased Plaintiff-Appellant, v. GENCORP AUTOMOTIVE, Self-Insured, Defendant-Appellee. Calendar
Decision Date16 June 1998
Docket NumberNo. 8,Docket No. 107059

Page 347

579 N.W.2d 347
457 Mich. 720
Marian HAGERMAN, In Her Own Behalf And On Behalf of Keith
Hagerman, Deceased Plaintiff-Appellant,
GENCORP AUTOMOTIVE, Self-Insured, Defendant-Appellee.
Docket No. 107059.
Calendar No. 8.
Supreme Court of Michigan.
Argued Dec. 10, 1997.
Decided June 16, 1998.

Page 348

Williams, Fotieo, Szczytko & Fedewa by Paul A. Williams, Grand Rapids, for plaintiff-appellant.

Smith, Haughey, Rice & Roegge by Lance R. Mather, Grand Rapids, for defendant-appellee.

Page 349


BOYLE, Justice.

We granted leave to appeal to examine the Legislature's use of the phrase "proximate cause" in M.C.L. § 418.375(2); M.S.A. § 17.237(375)(2), which provides for survivor's benefits under the worker's compensation act. 1 We decline to take up the cudgel with regard to the dissent's scholarly exploration of the evils of judicial legislation or to reconsider the holding in Dedes v. Asch, 446 Mich. 99, 521 N.W.2d 488 (1994). 2 Because the circumstances of decedent's death were within the range of compensable consequences under subsection 375(2), we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the decision of the magistrate.


Plaintiff's decedent, Keith Hagerman, worked as a millwright for defendant from April 16, 1984, until December 20, 1989. Decedent sustained a back injury at work on August 25, 1987, while trying to move a five-hundred-pound barrel. He returned to work, but sustained further aggravating injury to his back until he could no longer work as of December 20, 1989. Defendant paid benefits from decedent's last day of work until his death on March 28, 1990.

As part of the medical treatment of the injury, decedent's doctor ordered a myelogram to diagnose the extent of the injury and indicate the desirability of surgery. When decedent underwent this diagnostic medical procedure on March 7, 1990, a nurse advised him that successful recovery from the myelogram required that he consume large quantities of water before and after the procedure.

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As a result of this medical advice, after leaving the hospital, decedent consumed a sixteen ounce glass of water every ninety minutes.

Decedent suffered from high blood pressure for which he was taking the diuretic drug Aldoril. On the nights of March 8 and 9, decedent was hospitalized. It is undisputed that the high water intake, combined with the diuretic action of the Aldoril, depleted the sodium levels in his body, causing convulsions or seizures, that decedent aspirated gastric contents into his lungs as a result of the convulsions or seizures, which caused pneumonia and coma, and that decedent died of cardiac arrest on March 28, 1990.

Decedent's widow sought death benefits on April 12, 1990. Under subsection 375(2) of the worker's compensation act, when death is not immediate, the survivor seeking death benefits must show that a work-related injury was the "proximate cause" of the death. The magistrate awarded plaintiff benefits, concluding that the requirements of subsection 375(2) had been met by "[a] chain of medical causation [that was], although unexpected and unusual, ... clear and unbroken." 3 Citing 1 Larson, Workers' Compensation (hereinafter, "Larson"), § 13.21, the magistrate reasoned that "[t]he great weight of authority recognizes that the adverse consequences of medical management of a work related condition results in a compensable circumstance." The magistrate specifically held:

[T]he myelogram was necessitated by the work related injury. It is not an intervening, superseding event, unrelated to the original injury. It does not break the chain of causation. It is but one event occurring in an unbroken sequence of events flowing from, and necessitated by, the injury.

The Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission reversed, concluding that the death "was the result of medication designed to control his high blood pressure, a preexisting condition.... [T]he medication was an independent cause which lead to plaintiff's [sic] death." 1993 Mich. ACO 845, 847. The Court of Appeals originally reversed in a peremptory order, but, on subsequent plenary consideration, the Court affirmed the WCAC, concluding that plaintiff had failed to establish that decedent's death was proximately caused by the work-related injury. 209 Mich.App. 667, 531 N.W.2d 832 (1995).

Plaintiff sought leave to appeal in this Court. We remanded for reconsideration in light of Dedes v. Asch, supra, in which we held that the phrase "the proximate cause" in the governmental immunity statute, M.C.L. § 691.1407(2)(c); M.S.A. § 3.996(107)(2)(c), does not require the plaintiff to establish that the defendant's conduct was the sole proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries. 451 Mich. 874, 549 N.W.2d 565 (1996). On remand, the Court of Appeals did not apply Dedes. Rather, on further examination of the proximate cause issue, the Court of Appeals affirmed the WCAC, concluding that the work-related injury and the myelogram were not substantial factors in the death and that public policy could not support holding defendant to a duty to protect decedent from the harm suffered. 218 Mich.App. 19, 553 N.W.2d 623 (1996). Thus, both the WCAC and the Court of Appeals essentially attributed the death to the preexisting medical condition. We conclude that the Court of Appeals erred. The evidence was sufficient to support the magistrate's conclusion that the injury was the primary moving or substantial cause of the death. We vacate and affirm the decision of the magistrate.


"[T]he findings of the magistrate are conclusive when supported by substantial, competent, and material evidence...." Goff v. Bil-Mar Foods (After Remand), 454 Mich. 507, 511, 563 N.W.2d 214 (1997). "The question we are faced with on judicial appellate

Page 351

review ... is 'whether the WCAC acted in a manner consistent with the concept of administrative appellate review that is less than de novo review in finding that the magistrate's decision was or was not supported by competent, material, and substantial evidence on the whole record.' " Id., quoting Holden v. Ford Motor Co., 439 Mich. 257, 267-268, 484 N.W.2d 227 (1992). In applying subsection 375(2) in the instant case, and upholding the decision of the WCAC, the Court of Appeals employed an erroneous legal framework and based its decision on erroneous legal reasoning. Questions of law are reviewed de novo. Cardinal Mooney High School v. Michigan High School Athletic Ass'n, 437 Mich. 75, 80, 467 N.W.2d 21 (1991). 4

"[F]or centuries judges, lawyers and writers have used the phrase 'proximate cause' to indicate a cause of which the law will take notice." Perkins & Boyce, Criminal Law (3d ed.), p. 774. We attribute no greater or lesser intent to the Legislature in enacting § 375 than to ensure "legally recognized cause." Id. at 776. Construing the text reasonably to contain all that it fairly means, we find no basis to conclude that legally recognized cause under subsection 375(2) means sole proximate cause.

We need not revisit our decision in Dedes, supra, that "[t]he word 'the' before 'proximate cause' is not to be read to limit recovery if the plaintiff or another is also a cause .... [or] to prevent a defendant from claiming comparative negligence...." Id. at 118, 521 N.W.2d 488. Rather, for purposes of the question presented here, we need only observe that our reading of subsection 375(2) is consistent with the dictionary definitions of "a" and "the."

A. ... The word "a" has varying meanings and uses. "A" means "one" or "any," but less emphatically than either.... [Black's Law Dictionary (5th ed.), p. 1.]

The. An article which particularizes the subject spoken of. "Grammatical niceties should not be resorted to without necessity; but it would be extending liberality to an unwarrantable length to confound the articles "a" and "the". The most unlettered persons understand that "a" is indefinite, but "the" refers to a certain object. [Id. at 1324.][ 5

"Proximate cause" generally refers to the "primary or moving cause." Id. at 1103. Therefore, while "a" force might be one of a series of causes, "the" primary or moving force, does not logically or linguistically negate the existence of other forces. Stated otherwise, use of the term "the" to modify the object "proximate cause" does not compel the conclusion that the phrase means sole cause. Recognition of the fact that "proximate cause" means, in broad terms, "primary cause," requires us to also acknowledge the existence of other legally recognizable causes. Thus, we refuse defendant's invitation to engraft the word "sole" onto the statute between "the" and "proximate cause" and instead look to the common law to understand the meaning of the phrase "the proximate cause" in the WDCA.

1. The Historical Context

A conclusion that the Legislature intended sole causation in subsection 375(2) would not only ignore the text of the statute, it would also be inconsistent with concurrent causation principles predating the enactment of

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the predecessor of subsection 375(2) in 1912. 6 The law has consistently recognized that there may be more than one proximate cause.

The worker's compensation act eliminates contributory negligence (unless wilful) as a defense in death cases 7 and thus explicitly refutes any contention that the Legislature employed the phrase "the proximate cause" in 1912 as a reference to contributory negligence principles that existed at the time. Op. at 361. 8 Moreover any suggestion that principles of the doctrine of contributory negligence support the Legislature's intention to apply a standard of "sole" causation bespeaks a misunderstanding of common law contributory negligence, which was an affirmative defense that barred the plaintiff from recovery. There is no foundation in the common law for the notion that, because contributory negligence was a defense, the acts of the defendant on which liability was premised were required to be...

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