Safety and OSHA News

Court: Employee was worked to death, widow gets comp

A maintenance worker put in 14+ hours one day at work, which included using a jackhammer for hours. He died on the job of a heart attack. His widow wants workers’ comp death benefits. His employer denied her claim. Why did a court conclude his death was compensable?

Robert Dietz worked for the Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority in Pennsylvania as a field maintenance worker for 20 years.

His job regularly included heavy labor including jackhammering to dig up the road, repairing water main breaks and cutting tree roots out of the sewer system. He frequently worked more than 40 hours per week and was always on call.

On Nov. 7, 2007, he started work at 7:00 a.m. At 9:35 p.m., Dietz called his wife to tell her that he and other crew members were still working but that the job would likely be finished soon. His wife says he told her he had been doing roadwork and jackhammering for hours.

At 10:45 p.m., one of Dietz’s co-workers came to his house and took his wife to the hospital where she learned her husband had died of a heart attack after collapsing on the job.

His wife filed for workers’ comp death benefits. His employer denied the claim.

A workers’ comp judge (WCJ) heard the case.

Dietz’s widow presented testimony from a physician who was board certified in emergency medicine and thoracic surgery, including cardiac surgery. The doctor testified:

  • Dietz was in full cardiac arrest when first responders arrived.
  • He couldn’t be resuscitated at the scene or at the hospital.
  • In 2002, Dietz was diagnosed with mild narrowing of the arteries in his legs that didn’t require treatment.
  • Also in 2002, Dietz went to the hospital complaining of chest pain, but tests didn’t reveal any signs of coronary artery disease or a heart attack.
  • Dietz’s death certificate stated he died of a “sudden heart attack.” A sudden heart attack occurs when there is a sudden blood clot in a heart artery which can be caused by conditions such as cold weather, stress and physical labor. This, coupled with a small tear in the lining of the heart artery caused by physical labor, leads to the heart attack.

In summary, the doctor said Dietz’s long hours of physical labor caused his fatal heart attack.

However, Dietz smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. He’d also been taking medication for high cholesterol for about one year.

Dietz’s employer presented testimony from a doctor who was board certified in internal medicine with a focus on cardiology. This doctor testified:

  • Dietz had a hardening of leg arteries which restricts blood flow.
  • Dietz’s own doctor advised him to stop smoking when the arterial disease was diagnosed, but he didn’t.
  • It’s “very common” for someone with peripheral artery disease to also have coronary artery disease.
  • Dietz had other risk factors for a heart attack, including family history of coronary artery disease (Dietz’s father), elevated cholesterol, long history of pack-a-day smoking and weight.

This doctor concluded ruptured cholesterol plaque caused a blockage of the left main coronary artery which is also known as the “widow maker.” The doctor said Dietz’s fatal heart attack wasn’t caused by his job duties because he’d been performing the same job for 20 years. Because of his risk factors, “he was going to have a heart attack at some point in time” and “this could have happened at home … in his sleep,” the doctor opined.

The WCJ gave more credit to the testimony of the doctor representing Dietz’s widow and found his long workday caused the fatal heart attack. The WCJ awarded death benefits.

The employer appealed, and the workers’ compensation board reversed the decision. The board determined the finding that the long workday caused the heart attack was unsupported because the doctor had said cold weather, stress, physical labor and the long workday all combined to induce the heart attack.

Dietz’s widow appealed to a state court.

Doctor’s testimony misconstrued

The court found that the board mischaracterized the doctor’s testimony about the role cold weather played in the heart attack.

The doctor listed three different factors that can lead to a sudden heart attack, but he didn’t state that cold weather was a necessary component for Dietz’s heart attack. The physician also specifically stated “long hours of working” over the course of “an extremely long day” caused the heart attack.

The court found Dietz’s widow had proved her case that her husband had, in effect, been worked to death. Workers’ compensation death benefits could include 60% of her husband’s wages and up to $3,000 for burial.

The world of safety has recently put more emphasis on the role fatigue can play as a root cause of safety incidents. This case adds one more reason for employers to keep close watch for worker fatigue: It can also lead to health consequences, including death.

(Robert Dietz v. Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority, Commonwealth Court of PA, No. 2051C.D.2014, 8/14/15)

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Comments

  1. miltonmojo says:

    It’s difficult to get a true read on this case because the article states that the WCJ gave more credence to the testimony of the window’s Dr. vs the company’s, but doesn’t say why. Both physicians seem eminently qualified, and both appear to have presented well-reasoned arguments. But when I take those two opinions together what I come up with is an uncertainty (quite possibly an unknowability) about what actually caused the heart attack. Yet the WCJ weighed the opinions and was swayed to accept one over the other as the basis to make such a determination, so what swayed him?

  2. fredhosier says:

    Editor’s note: The court record doesn’t contain the reason why the WCJ gave more credit to the widow’s doctor. Here is a quote from the case: “This WCJ find Dr. Wolk’s [widow’s doctor] testimony on causation to be credible and presuasive that working on a field maintenance crew for 14+ hours caused the cardiac event and death. The decedent was clearly predisposed to a heart attack, but it was the long workday that stressed his body and triggered the event.”

  3. FIFOfiend says:

    As an employer, how would you guard against being culpable in this case?

    14 hours is a long day when it includes manual labour, but it doesn’t sound like this is a regular event for this employer/employee.

    if there is a well documented history of heart disease where a heart attack could be triggered at any moment, does the employer need to go to the extent of managing the pre disposed medical condition of every employee on every shift including when conditions change? ( this would be impossible)

    ‘coupled with a small tear in the lining of the heart artery caused by physical labor’ – are you serious?…at least its a good excuse to get out of mowing the lawn on the weekend.
    this legal process is a debacle, the impacts for workplace H&S in other cases could be devastating if this is used as a precedent. How someone with poor medical health who had been advised to change their habits for their own heath sake, can claim compensation for working a long shift ( presumably, not regularly) is a disgrace. Was it really the length and task of that particular shift that is more likely to blame or the poor health, documented heart condition pre disposition and non compliance of doctors advice that caused the death?
    …but I suppose if that employee had been looked after by the company and placed on restrictive duties where overtime may have been denied or a change of role, etc may have been though necessary, the employer would be taken for discrimination. unbelievable.

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