Deep pockets files: 1956 edition

by Ted Frank on March 11, 2010

Decedent, Lloyd A. Wiseman, a vice president of a San Francisco bank, died of asphyxiation and burns in a hotel room in New York City. He was in that city on bank business, and his traveling expenses, including his hotel bills, were paid by the bank. A woman, not his wife but registered as such, was found unconscious in his room and died shortly thereafter. There was evidence that they had been drinking. Sometime between 4 and 5 in the morning of his death, Wiseman telephoned the hotel manager for help because of a fire in his room. After calling the fire department, the manager went to the room but was unable to open the door with his passkey. Firemen arrived shortly thereafter and broke into the room but were too late to save the occupants. It was the opinion of the assistant fire marshal that the fire was caused by careless smoking by either one or both of the occupants.

The California Supreme Court went on to hold that Wiseman’s widow and children were entitled to death benefits from his employer because his death “was proximately caused by the employment”—a remarkable definition of proximate cause. The Court reasoned that Wiseman might have died while entertaining a legitimate guest in the hotel room (at 4 in the morning?), so the fact that the death occurred in the course of nookie was irrelevant. That seems to me to prove too much: Wiseman might have died smoking in his bed at home, too, and he just happened to be in a hotel when his bad habits killed him. But this was part of Judge Traynor’s successful remaking of tort law in the 1950′s, and the death of proximate cause is a large part why we have the mess we have today. Wiseman v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1956) 46 Cal. 2d 570.

(You can tell that this is still over fifty years ago, though, because the widow didn’t sue the hotel or cigarette company.)

{ 4 comments }

1 John Burgess 03.11.10 at 8:29 am

I really don’t see the problem with this case. The guy was in NYC on company business, at company expense. He was well within any useful definition of ‘working’ the whole while he was in the city (or traveling to/from). What he was up to during the not-actually-working hours is utterly immaterial.

Had he died while eating dinner, choking on a piece of food, his employer (actually, his employer’s insurance co.) would still be on the hook. Had he been involved in an accident while walking along the street, same thing. The ‘nookie’ only provides a cloud of titillation and, perhaps, a chance for scolds to feel outrage at someone doing a bad thing somehow ‘getting away with it’.

To the best of my knowledge, this is pretty standard stuff, not only in the private, but also the public sector.

2 Doug 03.11.10 at 1:44 pm

The problem is it expanded the definition of “proximate cause” so that almost anything meets the definition. Such is why, Ted has so well expressed, we have a mess. I don’t think this case should have meet the definition of proximate cause. Entertaining a client, indeed. I think what he was doing was material to proximate cause. In my mind, choking on food would not meet proximate cause, but but being killed in a plane or traffic accident while traveling to a meeting would. But just because I think this case doesn’t meet proximate cause, remember, the widow should have carried life insurance.

3 w.rogers turner, Jr. 03.11.10 at 10:20 pm

I have to side with John on this…as a worker’s comp practitioner, this is fairly standard. The affair aside, the rule in this case for a traveling employee is essentially the same as present day, at least in Florida. The defense could have argued perhaps intoxication, if that were an affirmative defense at the time. Generally, traveling employees injured or killed in a place they were reasonably expected to be during travel would be (or their estate) entitled to benefits. The exception would be if they substantially deviate from what they were expected to be doing. People injured working out at the Y on a business trip proabably get benefits. Someone traveling 100 miles from where they are supposed to be to go sky diving, less of a chance. Having watched a few episodes of “mad men”, the unfortunate decedent’s actions of being intoxicated, smoking and being with a woman other than his wife could have been wholly expected on an out of town business trip.
The concept of proximate cause is somewhat muddied in workers compensation, which is generally supposed to analyze entitlement to benefits regardless of fault.

4 Doug 03.12.10 at 2:14 pm

But that kind of compensation is due to an expanded definition of “proximate cause”. It is standard now, but not then. What would have today if that older tighter standard was the law today? Get life insurance.

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