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Pennsylvania Grants Workers’ Comp Claim that Man was “Worked to Death”

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If you have a heart attack on the job, is it possible to recover damages from a worker’s compensation claim?

According to a recent order by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, yes. A widow filed a fatal claim petition on behalf of her husband, who suffered a heart attack after working for Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority for 20 years. The claim was initially denied, but after multiple appeals the claim was finally approved.

Man Dies of Heart Attack After 14-Hour Work Day

The widow’s husband had worked as a field maintenance worker for 20 years. His job involved heavy labor, including jackhammering, repairing water main breaks, and cutting tree roots from the sewer system.

On November 7, 2007, the decedent left the house as usual to start work at 7:00 a.m. At about 9:30 that night, he called his wife to tell her that he was still working, that he had been jackhammering for hours, but that the job was soon to be finished. At 10:45 p.m., a co-worker showed up at the claimant’s house and took her to the hospital, where she found out that her husband had died of a heart attack after collapsing on the job. He was only 48 years old.

The claimant filed for a standard death benefit amounting to 60 percent of her husband’s wages, and up to $3,000 for burial expenses, according to Reuters. To be able to receive payment, however, the widow had to prove that her husband’s death was caused by his work. The employer initially denied the claim, after which it was referred to the workers’ compensation judge (WCJ).

WCJ Denies Claim Again

The widow testified that her husband worked a very long day on the day of his death, and that his work involved long hours of physical labor that led to his heart attack. She had a medical specialist who agreed that without the long workday, the decedent would not have suffered the heart attack. He explained that the type of heart attack the decedent suffered was caused by a sudden blood clot in the artery of the heart, and that conditions like cold weather, stress, and physical labor all cause a release of adrenaline that cause the blood to thicken.

The employer, on the other hand, had a cardiology specialist who argued that the decedent already had coronary artery disease, and that his death was not caused by his work. The WCJ concluded that though the claimant’s testimony was credible, the death was not related to the work, as the decedent had other non-work related risk factors and was used to working such long hours.

WCJ Reverses Decision, Granting the Petition

The widow appealed, and the board vacated and remanded the case, concluding that the WCJ had erred by requiring the claimant to produce evidence that her husband’s activity on the day of the heart attack was more strenuous than usual. The Board ruled that the petitioner need only prove a connection between his employment and his death.

On remand, the WCJ reconsidered the evidence under this standard and granted the fatal claim petition. They credited the testimony of the claimant’s medical expert: “What this [WCJ] did not fully appreciate in the prior decision was the role that the length of the workday played in precipitating the heart attack.” They added that it was the long workday that stressed the decedent’s body and triggered the event.

This wasn’t the end. The employer appealed, and the board reversed, finding that the claimant’s medical expert’s evidence was “unsupported” because neither he nor the widow knew exactly what the decedent was doing on the day of the heart attack. The Board also noted there was no witness testimony from co-workers, since he was working alone.

The Claimant then petitioned for review in the commonwealth court of Pennsylvania. The court stated that it was “undisputed” that the decedent had a very physical job, and that the evidence was sufficient to support the widow’s expert opinion.

“The WCJ correctly noted that although the details of the decedent’s final workday are scant, such details are unnecessary because of the nature of the decedent’s job.”

The Court determined that the order of the board should be reversed, and the final claim granted.