Maine Workers’ Compensation Alert: Supreme Court Rules on Application of § 327 Presumption

In Estate of Sullwold v. The Salvation Army, 2015 ME 4 (January 22, 2015), a high-level Salvation Army employee with a history of cardiovascular issues was found dead after a heart attack with his smart phone next to him and a financial news program on TV. The heart attack occurred during normal work hours, at home. The death was deemed work-related under the presumption in 39-A M.R.S. § 327: "In any claim for compensation, when the employee has been killed...there is a rebuttable presumption that the employee received a personal injury arising out of and in the course of employment...." The Estate was awarded death benefits.

The Salvation Army and its insurer appealed to the Appellate Division, asserting: (1) it was error to apply the § 327 presumption because the Estate failed to establish a link between the death and employment, and (2) it was error to shift the burden of proof to the employer to disprove facts established by the § 327 presumption. The Division affirmed, holding: "when § 327 is invoked and is determined to be applicable, the burden of persuasion shifts to the party against whom the presumption is directed to negate." To defeat the presumption, an employer is "required to establish and to persuade the hearing officer that it was more probable than not that the injury did not arise out of and in the course of employment." Rather than merely placing a burden of production on the employer, the Division apparently placed on the employer the burden of proving the nonexistence of a presumed fact.

The Maine Supreme Court affirmed, holding first that the hearing officer did not err in finding that the evidence triggered the presumption found in § 327. This is significant, as it expands the presumption to an incident occurring in a home office environment, versus one which occurs on the actual physical premises of an employer or at a job site. With respect to the burden shifting pursuant to § 327, the Law Court clarified that the Appellate Division did not erroneously shift the burden of persuasion to the employer but, rather, appropriately applied the standard under Toomey v. City of Portland, under which once an employer produces sufficient evidence to overcome the presumption of work-relatedness, the presumption disappears from the case and the estate must then meet its burden of proof to prevail.

For more information on this case or to learn more about Preti Flaherty's Workers' Compensation Group, contact any of our Workers' Compensation attorneys.