A maintenance worker put in 14+ hours one day at work, which included using a jackhammer for hours. He died on the job of a heart attack. His widow wants workers’ comp death benefits. His employer denied her claim. Why did a court conclude his death was compensable?
Robert Dietz worked for the Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority in Pennsylvania as a field maintenance worker for 20 years.
His job regularly included heavy labor including jackhammering to dig up the road, repairing water main breaks and cutting tree roots out of the sewer system. He frequently worked more than 40 hours per week and was always on call.
On Nov. 7, 2007, he started work at 7:00 a.m. At 9:35 p.m., Dietz called his wife to tell her that he and other crew members were still working but that the job would likely be finished soon. His wife says he told her he had been doing roadwork and jackhammering for hours.
At 10:45 p.m., one of Dietz’s co-workers came to his house and took his wife to the hospital where she learned her husband had died of a heart attack after collapsing on the job.
His wife filed for workers’ comp death benefits. His employer denied the claim.
A workers’ comp judge (WCJ) heard the case.
Dietz’s widow presented testimony from a physician who was board certified in emergency medicine and thoracic surgery, including cardiac surgery. The doctor testified:
- Dietz was in full cardiac arrest when first responders arrived.
- He couldn’t be resuscitated at the scene or at the hospital.
- In 2002, Dietz was diagnosed with mild narrowing of the arteries in his legs that didn’t require treatment.
- Also in 2002, Dietz went to the hospital complaining of chest pain, but tests didn’t reveal any signs of coronary artery disease or a heart attack.
- Dietz’s death certificate stated he died of a “sudden heart attack.” A sudden heart attack occurs when there is a sudden blood clot in a heart artery which can be caused by conditions such as cold weather, stress and physical labor. This, coupled with a small tear in the lining of the heart artery caused by physical labor, leads to the heart attack.
In summary, the doctor said Dietz’s long hours of physical labor caused his fatal heart attack.
However, Dietz smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. He’d also been taking medication for high cholesterol for about one year.
Dietz’s employer presented testimony from a doctor who was board certified in internal medicine with a focus on cardiology. This doctor testified:
- Dietz had a hardening of leg arteries which restricts blood flow.
- Dietz’s own doctor advised him to stop smoking when the arterial disease was diagnosed, but he didn’t.
- It’s “very common” for someone with peripheral artery disease to also have coronary artery disease.
- Dietz had other risk factors for a heart attack, including family history of coronary artery disease (Dietz’s father), elevated cholesterol, long history of pack-a-day smoking and weight.
This doctor concluded ruptured cholesterol plaque caused a blockage of the left main coronary artery which is also known as the “widow maker.” The doctor said Dietz’s fatal heart attack wasn’t caused by his job duties because he’d been performing the same job for 20 years. Because of his risk factors, “he was going to have a heart attack at some point in time” and “this could have happened at home … in his sleep,” the doctor opined.
The WCJ gave more credit to the testimony of the doctor representing Dietz’s widow and found his long workday caused the fatal heart attack. The WCJ awarded death benefits.
The employer appealed, and the workers’ compensation board reversed the decision. The board determined the finding that the long workday caused the heart attack was unsupported because the doctor had said cold weather, stress, physical labor and the long workday all combined to induce the heart attack.
Dietz’s widow appealed to a state court.
Doctor’s testimony misconstrued
The court found that the board mischaracterized the doctor’s testimony about the role cold weather played in the heart attack.
The doctor listed three different factors that can lead to a sudden heart attack, but he didn’t state that cold weather was a necessary component for Dietz’s heart attack. The physician also specifically stated “long hours of working” over the course of “an extremely long day” caused the heart attack.
The court found Dietz’s widow had proved her case that her husband had, in effect, been worked to death. Workers’ compensation death benefits could include 60% of her husband’s wages and up to $3,000 for burial.
The world of safety has recently put more emphasis on the role fatigue can play as a root cause of safety incidents. This case adds one more reason for employers to keep close watch for worker fatigue: It can also lead to health consequences, including death.
(Robert Dietz v. Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority, Commonwealth Court of PA, No. 2051C.D.2014, 8/14/15)