Safety and OSHA News

Should widow get comp for husband’s fatal heart attack at work?

Was a widow able to show that work stress triggered her husband’s fatal heart attack? That’s what she needed to prove to get workers’ comp death benefits.

The employee was a receiver at a Waldbaum’s grocery store.

However, he was assigned to be the acting store manager during the afternoon and evening shift on Super Bowl Sunday, 2007.

Being a fill-in store manager on one of the busiest days of the year is stressful enough. On top of that, an irate customer put up a fuss that the fill-in manager had to deal with.

At about 7 p.m. that day, the employee collapsed to the floor of the store and died soon after of a heart attack.

His widow applied for workers’ comp death benefits. A WC law judge ruled the employee’s death was not causally related to his employment.

The WC board reversed that decision and awarded the benefits. Waldbaum’s took the case to a state appeals court.

Is timing a factor?

Waldbaum’s noted that the confrontation with the angry customer occurred hours before the employee’s death.

An expert witness for the store argued significant work-related stress or aggravation had to occur immediately before the employee’s collapse for it to be considered causally related to work. Since the incident happened hours before the heart attack, the store’s expert testified that the comp claim should be thrown out.

An expert for the widow testified that the employee’s fatal heart attack was triggered by the stress resulting from the responsibility of running the entire store on Super Bowl Sunday as well as the argument with the customer. Therefore, there was a causal connection to work.

The appeals court upheld the WC board’s ruling that the widow should receive death benefits. The court noted the board relied on medical evidence and testimony to reach its decision and that the employer’s expert admitted it is possible for an event that didn’t occur right before a heart attack to be a trigger.

What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments below.

(Roberts v. Waldbaum’s, Supreme Court, Appellate Div., New York, No. 513795, 9/27/12)

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  1. At first I didn’t know what to think. Then I clicked on “Roberts vs Waldbaums” at the bottom of the article. That piece states “he collapsed on the floor of the store” where this article doesn’t state where he collapsed. Just that he collapsed on a floor. In which I thought he was at home. Because it happened at the store I believe the WC benefits should be paid.

  2. Editor’s note: Article is changed to reflect that the heart attack happened in the store.

  3. Heart attack from running a grocery store? Geez, I’m sure restocking the Doritos display is highly stressful but I would assume the are other contributing factors. Just because something happens AT work does not automatically make it work-related.

  4. J. M. Buckley says:

    We don’t have enough info. What was his age? What was his general health condition? What was his relationship with his wife? Maybe she was the one causing the real stress in his life and the reason he chose to work Super Bowl Sunday. No one lives forever

  5. I don’t believe there is enough information provided in this artical to be able to say one way or the other. Yes it’s a very bad ordeal having to pass away, and especially at work. I think you have to look at his over-all health picture first. Just because you pass away at work doesn’t mean it’s workmans comp.

    For instance: If an individuall is over-weight, drinks and smokes in excess, has bad eating habits and is basically a walking time-bomb, is it his employers fault that his number gets called while he is at work?

  6. Asking us to decide whether or not this wife should receive benefits is as unfair as asking workers’ comp to make their decision, without all the facts.

  7. Robert K. says:

    He was acting store manager, on an busy day more than usual, so he was responsible for more than what he was accustomed too. The altercation probably contributed. It happened at the store, so I’d say yes, pay the benefits.

  8. I also ask “was this his normal job duties, was he performing any duties that were outside his normal scope of practice?” Had he filled in this job before, did he have the right to refuse?
    This one is a tough call, and I agree that there are a lot of issues involved. Did he smoke? Was he overweight? High Cholesterol, etc.
    I had a call similar to this years ago in an employee that stroked because of elevated B/P which was thought to be work stress related.

  9. The key problem with this ruling is that ultimately heart attacks are medical conditions that generally relate to diet, physical conditioning, and family history of heart disease, not outside stress. While outside stress can contribute to a heart attack it is not considered the cause, just a contributing factor and exists in all aspects of life not just work. Of the three primary causes, one is not correctable. If precedence is set making a heart attack at work a work related injury due to the potential of stress it opens employers in the future to the opportunity to restrict diets and require certain physical requirements to ensure that their employees are heart healthy. It can not only go one way. This heart healthy requirement could impose work out requirements, body mass restrictions and impose heart healthy diets on employees. This is a slippery slope to walk.

  10. Absolutely a terrible ruling by the board. Everything written within the article tells me that someone had to manage the store that day, and it was his turn. All of the rationale presented for the stress is common for a store manager, whether it be Friday before a holiday, or SuperSunday. My guess is that the wife is putting forth this argument to assage her guilt of nagging her husband daily (just a gut feeling). Realistically, #1 This man had heart problems, whether diagnosed or not, and that goes to personal health, diet and excercise, or even gentics. A situation where an employee might have a very good case (in my opinion) for work related heart attack would be when a company orders an employee to work outside in a hot humid climate withiout breaks, shade, or water. We have to get away from connecting everything to the workplace.

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