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Worker’s Compensation Rejected In Meningitis Cases

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Nick Youngson
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Pointing to tough legal standards approved by the Legislature, an appeals court Wednesday rejected workers’ compensation insurance claims involving allegations that two men developed meningitis after inhaling types of fungus while on the job. 

In one of the cases, Indian River County school district groundskeeper Edward Cruce died of cryptococcal meningitis in January 2015. The case centered on allegations that he had been exposed to cryptococcus fungus in pigeon feces while cleaning out a storage area months before his death.

The other case was filed by Robert Taylor, a city of Titusville heavy-equipment operator who contended he was exposed to another type of fungus while working on a land-clearing project in a wooded area. He was diagnosed with fungal meningitis in August 2015.

Judge of Compensation Claims Robert Dietz backed workers’ compensation benefits for Cruce’s survivors and for Taylor in the separate cases. But in two opinions issued Wednesday, a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal reversed Dietz’s decisions.

The rulings cited a “heightened standard of proof” that the Legislature put in state law for dealing with workers’ compensation claims about exposure to toxic substances. The appeals court said both cases did not meet that standard of proof.

For example, in the Cruce case, it said cryptococcus fungus is found in many places. The court said “competent substantial evidence does not support the JCC’s determination that claimants (Cruce’s survivors) satisfied, by clear and convincing evidence, their burden of proving occupational causation.”

But in the Taylor case, judges also appeared to acknowledge that the standard of proof could be hard to meet in such cases.

“This court has and continues to recognize that workers’ compensation is a statutory matter and the Legislature has broad discretion in crafting the parameters of benefits due,” Judge M. Kemmerly Thomas wrote in the Taylor case. “In reaching this decision, we readily acknowledge the Herculean task created by the heightened burden of proof for toxic exposure claims. However, in deference to the Legislature we will not craft, in derogation of the plain text of sections (of state law), a lesser burden of proof.”

In a concurring opinion, Judge James Wolf wrote that the Taylor case and a 2011 decision by the same appeals court “reject the use of overwhelming circumstantial evidence to prove the statutory requirements of clear and convincing evidence in toxic exposure cases. Direct proof of the level of exposure to the toxic substance is simply not available in a great number of toxic exposure cases.”

Thomas and Wolf were joined by Chief Judge Stephanie Ray in overturning the decisions by the judge of compensation claims.