Safety and OSHA News

Was at-work heart attack caused by job exertion?

Doctors for a worker’s estate and his employer disagreed on whether work exertion led to his death. How did a court rule? 

On Jan. 21, 2010, Eddie Ray Thomas Jr. died while attempting to tow a truck from a deep roadside ditch.

Thomas managed his father’s service station in Kentucky. He was under a lot of stress because the EPA had notified him that leaking underground gas tanks at the business would have to be removed. Thomas was concerned that without the ability to sell gasoline, the business would no longer be viable.

One day after getting the EPA notification, state police called Thomas to tow a truck that had run off a road and into a ditch.

It wouldn’t be an easy tow: the ditch was deep enough that the top of the truck was four feet below the road surface.

Thomas made several attempts to get the truck out of the culvert. He climbed up and down a steep embankment and under the stuck truck four times and couldn’t pull the truck out. He concluded a larger tow truck was needed.

An eyewitness said after Thomas climbed out of the ditch the fourth time he complained of heartburn. Thomas went to his truck to make a call for a larger tow vehicle.

The eyewitness says he saw then saw Thomas get out of the truck, grab his chest, lean against the truck and collapse. Emergency personnel transported Thomas to the hospital where he died.

No autopsy was performed on Thomas. Medical records show he had high blood pressure which was generally under control with medication. The 2008 medical exam for his commercial driver’s license showed no evidence of cardiovascular disease.

His widow filed for workers’ comp death benefits. The insurer for the company denied the claim.

Thomas’s widow filed reports from a doctor who concluded intense physical stress and emotional stress can “precipitate a cardiovascular event such as sudden cardiac death … the events surrounding Mr. Thomas’s death could have played a role in this regard.”

The doctor concluded, “the physical exertion immediately preceding Mr. Thomas’s symptoms triggered plaque rupture and precipitated his heart attack and sudden death.”

A doctor for the company reached a different conclusion. That doctor said Thomas had been engaged in “minimal exertion.” This doctor concluded “the fatal arrhythmia that caused the unfortunate death could have occurred at any time and was merely coincidental that it took place while he was at work.”

An administrative law judge ruled in favor of the company and denied benefits to Thomas’s widow. The Kentucky Workers’ Compensation Board affirmed the ALJ’s decision. An appeals court reversed the decision and remanded the case to the ALJ to award benefits. The company appealed that decision, and recently the Kentucky Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case.

Misunderstanding of events

The supreme court found that the doctor for the company had an inaccurate understanding of the facts in the case.

The company’s doctor had concluded Thomas had engaged in only “minimal exertion.” The supreme court noted that an eyewitness account said Thomas was “winded” after walking up and down the steep culvert and repositioning the tow chain four times. The court found that was “indicative of moderate to vigorous activity.”

The court also noted the company doctor’s failure to consider the emotional stress Thomas was under. The company doctor’s report also contained a number of other inconsistencies, according to the court.

For those reasons, the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court ruling and sent the case back to the ALJ to award benefits to Thomas’s widow.

Appeals courts often defer to the opinions of administrative law judges who hear the detailed testimony in workers’ compensation cases. That’s often the case – but it isn’t always so, depending on the facts.

(Eddie’s Service Center v. Donna Thomas, Estate of Eddie Ray Thomas Jr., Supreme Court of Kentucky, No. 10-WC-97727, 12/15/16)

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