A former Federal Express courier claims he developed a heart condition and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from work. FedEx says neither one should be covered under workers’ comp. How did a court rule?
William Hart worked for FedEx from 1987 through Sept. 15, 2009.
Hart was 47 when his FedEx employment ended. He worked out at the gym up to two hours a day. He also ran about three times each week.
His workday averaged 10 to 12 hours. He received a service award in 2004 and had no marks against him until 2009.
In 2009 his delivery area was enlarged, increasing his number of stops. Hart asked his managers for help when the workload became unmanageable but was told nothing could be done.
One day in June 2009, he didn’t replace the fuel cap on his truck tightly and a small amount of diesel fuel spilled. He received a written warning for the fuel spill.
At the same time, FedEx gave him another written warning for exceeding his allotted time off. Hart says it was because of the death of his mother. He took five days off work, and FedEx classified only three of the five days as bereavement leave.
On Sept. 15, 2009, Hart found his route would have 15 stops per hour, an impossible number to complete on schedule. He asked if some of the stops could be assigned to another driver, but his request was denied.
It was a hot day and his FedEx truck had a transparent roof that created a greenhouse effect inside the vehicle which didn’t have air conditioning.
One customer wasn’t present when he delivered a package that required a signature. Later in the day he was told to go back to the address, and the customer wasn’t there a second time.
Hart ran significantly behind schedule and didn’t have time to stop for food or drink. He was hot and sweating, and he started to feel light-headed and a fluttering sensation in his chest.
One of his stops was at a fire station. He asked to be checked by fire personnel. His heart rate was more than 200 beats per minute. An ambulance rushed him to a hospital. An electrocardiogram showed his heartbeat at one point reached 300 beats per minute.
ER testing uncovered heart arrhythmia. Blood work showed low potassium levels, a potential result of dehydration. Hart was kept in the hospital overnight.
Doctors placed Hart on medical leave until Sept. 26, 2009. Heart monitoring showed that even after he improved, he continued to have heart arrhythmia. His work leave was extended. He also suffered from anxiety about work.
From late 2009 through early 2012, seven healthcare professionals saw Hart who remained out of work. They found:
- A July 2010 heart monitor showed he continued to suffer from atrial flutter
- Hart experienced flashbacks and vivid dreams of the 2009 ambulance ride, and
- Two psychiatrists diagnosed him with PTSD.
The psychiatrists said Hart’s work was the cause or a significant factor in the development of PTSD. They said this resulted from an event that involved serious injury and a threat to his physical being.
The only area of dispute was Hart’s level of disability and his ability to work. A doctor hired by FedEx opined Hart was only 10-11% disabled and that he could return to work.
Hart’s last medical excuse from work expired on Aug. 7, 2010. He didn’t seek employment outside of FedEx. Six months after his hospitalization, he approached FedEx about coming back to work part-time. FedEx denied his request due to its policy that it doesn’t transfer employees within one year of receiving a written warning. He resumed working out at the gym, and helped to paint his father’s house. He was granted Social Security disability benefits in May 2012.
Hart filed for workers’ comp. FedEx contested the request. A workers’ comp commissioner found that, before his work injury, Hart had an asymptomatic heart condition he was unaware of. The commissioner also found FedEx subjected Hart to unmanageable workloads without time for breaks. As a result he became dehydrated which resulted in low potassium levels and left him more susceptible to cardiac arrhythmia.
The commissioner also found the unreasonable work demands resulted in psychological stress. The physical trauma and the emergency treatment were substantial factors in causing him to develop PTSD, according to the commissioner.
Hart was awarded total incapacity benefits from Sept. 15, 2009 until Aug. 7, 2010. The state workers’ comp board affirmed the commissioner’s decision. The case went next to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
‘Sheer reality’ of work?
- It was “counterintuitive” to think that a “physical specimen” such as Hart could have been “even phased” by having to run back and forth from his truck in the heat carrying heavy packages, and
- “The sheer reality is that most employers ask a great deal of their workers” and the stresses associated with Hart’s work at FedEx were nothing out of the ordinary.
In a rebuke to FedEx, the court said the company “studiously avoided any mention of certain noteworthy facts” in the case, including:
- Hart was required to spend a 10-12 hour day working in an unair-conditioned truck that radiated with ambient heat
- Managers at FedEx continuously denied help to Hart when he asked for it and instead continued to increase his stop count, and
- His delivery schedule left no time for him to stop for hydration.
“We are skeptical of the defendants’ suggestion that most Connecticut employers require similarly situated employees to labor under such conditions,” was the withering assessment of the court.
The court upheld Hart’s workers’ comp benefits for the 46-week period.
This decision comes as a timely reminder: Workers who spend much of their workdays in the hot sun need proper breaks and hydration. As this case shows, heat illnesses are just one potential ramification when that doesn’t happen. Other illnesses, including cardiac, are also a possibility.
What do you think about this case? Let us know in the comments.
(William D. Hart v. Federal Express Corp., Connecticut Supreme Court, No. SC 19523, 4/19/16)