Safety and OSHA News

Is company liable for worker’s fatal heart attack?

What if an employee working remotely had a heart attack and emergency crews couldn’t reach him for 35 minutes? That’s what happened in this case, and now the deceased worker’s widow has sued the company.

Larry Sells worked as a conductor for CSX Transportation Inc. In August 2006, Sells had to leave the train and manually operate a switch to change tracks in a rural area of Clay County, FL.

After he exited the train, Sells suffered a heart attack. The train’s engineer discovered Sells about two minutes after he had the attack.

As required by CSX policy and in compliance with federal regulations prohibiting employees from using cell phones while operating a train, the engineer contacted CSX’s dispatcher via the train’s radio system.

Because the dispatcher wasn’t able to describe Sells’ exact location, the EMTs’ arrival was delayed by up to 15 minutes. It took the EMTs a total of about 35 minutes to reach Sells at which point there was nothing they could do to save his life.

Sells’ widow sued CSX under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), alleging CSX’s negligence caused Sells’ death.

His widow claimed CSX owed a duty to provide Sells with a reasonably safe workplace and it breached that duty by failing to:

  • take reasonable measures to ensure Sells received prompt, timely and adequate medical attention
  • provide reasonably safe equipment – CSX failed to equip its trains with automated external defibrillators (AEDs)
  • train Sells’ co-workers in CPR, and
  • call promptly for emergency personnel after Sells collapsed.

A jury returned a verdict in favor of Sells’ widow, but CSX asked the trial judge to set the jury’s verdict aside and rule in its favor as a matter of law. The judge accepted the CSX motion and ruled in the company’s favor. The judge concluded CSX had no duty to anticipate that Sells might suffer a heart attack and that his widow failed to provide any evidence that CSX’s response contributed to his death.

Sells’ widow took her case to a Florida appeals court which recently issued a ruling.

CSX slow to act, but …

Under FELA, a railroad is responsible for its employees’ injury or death caused in whole or part by the railroad’s negligence. The railroad must also provide a reasonably safe workplace, work conditions, and tools and equipment under the law.

As part of the duty to provide a safe workplace, the employer is required to get medical assistance for an employee when the employee becomes seriously ill and is unable to take care of himself.

However, an employer isn’t required to take preventive action in anticipation of a worker becoming ill or injured. For that reason, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that CSX had no duty to provide AEDs for its employees on its trains.

The appeals court agreed with his widow that CSX failed to promptly summon medical treatment for Sells.

But the court ruled his widow didn’t establish a link between the lack of quick response and Sells’ death.

At trial, medical testimony established that no matter what happened, the EMTs wouldn’t have arrived on time to save Sells’ life.

Even if there was no 15 minute delay, it would have taken the EMTs 15 minutes to arrive at the train’s remote location. Doctors testified Sells’ chance of survival after 10 minutes was minimal. Brain death can start to occur after just four minutes.

The appeals court applied the same reasoning to the widow’s argument that CSX should have permitted its employees to directly call 911. Calling 911 would not have saved Sells’ life either.

The appeals court also noted the law doesn’t require CSX to provide all emergency medical care that its employees might need. Only basic first aid, such as bandaging and moving someone out of harms way is required.

Summing up, the court found CSX didn’t have a duty to require its employees to perform CPR on another employee under the direction of a 911 operator.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s decision to rule in favor of CSX. Although the court acknowledged CSX’s delay in summoning help for Sells, it found that, even if the EMTs had arrived as quickly as they possibly could, it would have been too late to save Sells because of the train’s remote location.

What do you think about this case? Let us know in the comments.

(Crystal Sells v. CSX Transportation Inc., District Court of Appeal First District of Florida, No. 1D13-4775, 5/4/15)

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