An employee met a colleague at a restaurant to discuss work. While getting food from the salad bar, the employee tripped and fell. A doctor said the injuries he suffered from the fall caused his death a month later. Can his widow get workers’ comp death benefits?
Jack Rabin was a professor at Penn State. He had been working closely with a doctoral student who was preparing his dissertation. The two would meet regularly at a restaurant to discuss the doctoral dissertation because they were on campus at different times: One taught during the day and the other taught at night.
During one restaurant meeting, the two men went to the salad bar. The doctoral student heard a loud crash and found Rabin lying on the floor, groaning. Rabin said he had caught his foot on something and fell. He felt pain in his upper left chest, shoulder and arm.
Rabin suffered a shoulder fracture and dislocation. A doctor performed a “shoulder closed relocation.” Rabin was discharged from the hospital the next day.
Three days later, he was back at another hospital, suffering from shoulder pain and difficulty walking. Rabin’s doctor said the patient was in cardiac and respiratory distress.
The next month, while still hospitalized, Rabin died. His doctor wrote in his hospital summary, “The patient expired from multiple medical problems stemming from his unfortunate left upper extremity fracture.”
Rabin’s widow applied for workers’ comp death benefits. A workers’ comp judge awarded the benefits, but Penn State appealed. The workers’ comp board affirmed the judge’s opinion, and the university took its case to a state court.
Was he ‘engaged in business?’
In its appeal, Penn State argued Rabin’s widow failed to prove her husband sustained his injuries while in the course of his employment. The university argued Rabin was on a lunch break when he fell and that he wasn’t “engaged in the furtherance of his employer’s business” at the time.
The state court credited testimony from the doctoral student who said he and Rabin had met several times over a meal to discuss his dissertation. The student said that, had it not been for Rabin’s fall, the two of them would have continued their discussion after they got their food on the day of Rabin’s injury.
The state court noted that previous case law established that “where the injury occurred during an inconsequential or innocent departure from work within the regular working hours,” the employee was engaged in business.
Rabin’s “trip to the salad bar cannot logically be construed as anything more than an inconsequential departure from his work as a professor, in which he was engaged at the time,” the court wrote.
Penn State also argued Rabin’s widow failed to prove his fall at the salad bar substantially contributed to his death. The professor had several preexisting conditions which were triggered by the fall.
But the court credited testimony by Rabin’s doctor who stated his multiple medical problems were exacerbated by his fracture and that caused him to “go into complete body system failure.”
The court also rejected this line of argument.
For those reasons, the court rejected Penn State’s argument that Rabin wasn’t engaged in business when he was injured. The court affirmed the workers’ comp board decision to give his widow workers’ comp death benefits.
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(Penn State v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, Commonwealth court of PA, No. 2224 C.D. 2011, 8/15/12)