Workforce Safety and Insurance has denied a death claim filed in the death of a Burleigh County sheriff's deputy.
Bryan Sleeper, 39, died of an apparent heart attack on Sept. 28 after assisting another officer in arresting a suspected drunken driver.
Bryan Klipfel, WSI director, said the state worker's compensation agency covers all full-time law enforcement and firefighters in cases of heart attacks, strokes, hypertension and other possibly stress-induced problems under the presumption that the conditions were caused by work-related stress. Employees are covered under the presumption as long as they pass required physicals, have spent at least five years in the professions and have been tobacco-free for two years, Klipfel said.
Steve Little, an attorney for Bryan Sleeper's wife, Lana Sleeper, said WSI denied the death claim for Sleeper and Lana Sleeper has requested reconsideration of the claim. He said if the claim continues to be denied, he will take the matter to the decision review office of WSI. The matter could be appealed further to an administrative hearing, then to district court and the state Supreme Court.
Little said Sleeper had used chewing tobacco in the two years prior to his death, though he had quit chewing six weeks before he died.
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"WSI is asserting that the cause of death was not the incident, that it was in fact a pre-existing condition and that it wasn't unusual stress," Little said.
He said he does not have much information on the case other than the agency's decision to deny the claim. Little said Sleeper had some past heart-related "work up" done, but he always passed his physicals and had no prior health problems in performing his work duties.
"I think that if Bryan Sleeper had not been called to have a physical altercation with a suspect, he'd be alive today," Little said. "He didn't have a heart attack sitting behind the desk eating a doughnut. He was engaged in a fight. To me, the work relationship is clear ... He didn't have any more defects than anyone else."
Klipfel said he cannot comment on the case other than to explain the process. However, he said the Sleeper family would have the opportunity to present more information to prove that Sleeper's death was due to work-related stress rather than any pre-existing conditions.
Little has been handling worker's compensation cases for 26 years. In the past five or six years, he said, WSI has used pre-existing conditions more often to deny claims than in the past.
"I've seen them go back to (problems from) infancy," he said.
Private insurance companies don't go back as far as WSI when looking at pre-existing conditions, he said.
"I think these decisions are driven by WSI's attitude, not the law. The law hasn't changed - it's just their approach to things," Little said.
Klipfel said without seeing data on what Little said about the use of pre-existing conditions by WSI, he could not provide any insight into it.
"I don't think we're denying any more for pre-existing conditions," he said.
Klipfel said he hopes to speak with Little about the Sleeper case. Little said it is not usual for the WSI director to get involved in cases, and he attributed Klipfel's interest in clearing up the matter to the publicity the agency's denial had caused.
Little hopes the case can be resolved in favor of Sleeper's family.
"To blame his death on him, I wonder if that's really what some people would call the North Dakota way," he said.
(Reach reporter Jenny Michael at 250-8225 or email@example.com.)
Reach reporter Jenny Michael at 250-8225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.