Safety and OSHA News

Fatal heart attack under stressful work conditions: Will widow get comp benefits?

One question would determine whether an employee’s widow would receive workers’ comp benefits for her husband’s on-the-job heart attack. 

Laurent (Larry) Britton died from a heart attack he suffered on the job at the Charleston County Radio Communications Department in the early morning hours of Sept. 9, 2014. Here’s what happened that night:

At 7:23 p.m. on Sept. 8, 2014, an armed assault was reported at an apartment complex in the City of Charleston. The sheriff’s office responded to the scene and tried to make contact with the suspect who had barricaded himself in an apartment. The suspect exchanged gunfire with two deputies. At 7:36 p.m., a call went out over the radio system, “shots fired, officers down.” One deputy was killed, the other required emergency surgery.

A nine-hour standoff followed which ended when a SWAT team entered the apartment. The suspect died of gunshot wounds suffered in the exchange of fire with the two deputies.

Britton was attending a Fraternal Order of Police dinner when he learned about the shooting. Britton, who had already put in a full shift that day, returned to the radio communication equipment room to monitor the system. More than 100 first responders had to be kept in communication during the incident. Britton attended to the equipment to make sure it didn’t go down.

At 1:25 a.m. on Sept. 9, 2014, Britton called 911 to report shortness of breath and chest pain. EMS transported Britton to a hospital where he died of a heart attack at about 3:05 a.m.

Were conditions unusual/extraordinary?

Charleston County submitted a workers’ comp claim on behalf of Britton’s wife. The insurance carrier denied the claim.

A commissioner held a hearing and awarded Britton’s wife workers’ comp benefits, including funeral expenses and 500 weeks (over 9.5 years) of compensation. The employer appealed. The Workers’ Compensation Commission upheld the ruling, and the employer took the case to a state court.

In a 1991 decision, a South Carolina appeals court wrote:

“It is well settled in this state that a heart attack suffered by an employee constitutes a compensable accident if it is induced by unexpected strain or overexertion in the performance of the duties of employment or by unusual and extraordinary conditions in the employment.”

Charleston County argued the conditions on the night of the armed standoff weren’t unusual and extraordinary.

But the state appeals court disagreed. The court noted that Britton:

  • had already put in a full day’s work when he returned to the equipment room for about another five hours
  • was alone in the equipment room during the standoff
  • “bore the heavy responsibility of keeping more than 100 first responders in communication”
  • believed his friend had been shot and killed (this turned out not to be the case), and
  • hadn’t experienced the death of a deputy in the line of duty during his employment with the department.

The county sheriff testified that to describe the circumstances as exceptional or unusual would be an “understatement.”

The county EMS medical director said with 35 years of experience, the standoff was the only time he had ever experienced something like this.

The court noted not all of the circumstances during the night of the standoff were uncommon to Britton’s employment, but there was more than enough evidence to support the Commission’s finding that his death occurred under unusual and extraordinary conditions. The court upheld the award of workers’ comp benefits to Britton’s widow.

(Laurent W. Britton v. Charleston County, South Carolina Court of Appeals, No. 2016-000595, 9/19/18)

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