Booker v. Duke Medical Center
297 N.C. 458 (1979)

Facts:

  • Since 1966, Booker worked as a lab tech Duke Medical.
  • Part of his job was manually testing blood samples, some of which were infected with serum hepatitis that would routinely spill on his fingers.
  • In early July, 1971, Booker started developing some symptoms, and a doctor ascertained it was hepatitis serum.
  • Booker died in January 1974, an autopsy revealing the same.
  • His dependents filed for death benefits.

History:

  • The Commission found that the disease was compensable.
  • The Court of Appeals reversed.
    • It concluded that Booker’s injury was not the result of an “accident” because no specific incident could be identified which led to his contracting the disease.

Issue:
Whether or not his death was the result of an “occupational disease.”

Holding:
Yes. Case reversed.

Reasoning:

  • An NC statute (97-53) set out a list of diseases that were deemed “occupational diseases.” Because serum hepatitis was not included in the list, it had to fall within the general definition found in subsection 13, which provided that an occupational disease is:
    • “Any disease…which is proven to be due to causes and conditions which are characteristic of and peculiar to a particular trade…but excluding all ordinary diseases of life to which the general public is equally exposed outside of the employment.”
  • (1) A disease is “characteristic” of a profession when there is a recognizable link between the nature of the job and an increased risk of contracting the disease in question.
    • Here, this was easily satisfied because Booker was frequently exposed to serum hepatitis.
    • Additionally, just because the public could catch this disease doesn’t mean it was an “ordinary disease of life” that precludes coverage. It’s undisputed that Booker’s job exposed him to a greater risk than the public.
    • “Our statute, however, does not preclude coverage for all ordinary diseases of life but instead only those to which the general public is equally exposed outside of the employment.”
  • (2) As for causation, circumstantial evidence is obviously necessary. Among the circumstances which may be considered are: (1) the extent of exposure to the disease or disease-causing agents during employment, (2) the extent of exposure outside employment, and (3) absence of the disease prior to the work-related exposure as shown by the employee’s medical history.
    • Here:
      • (1) During the four years he worked at the laboratory, Booker handled and tested blood samples, some of which would routinely spill on his fingers;
      • (2) Booker’s hobby was gardening and from time to time he would nick or cut his fingers; and
      • (3) For more than six months prior to diagnosis of his disease Booker had no injections of any type and no illnesses.
    • Thus, these findings were sufficient to sustain the Commission’s conclusion that Booker’s disease was caused by his employment.