Annals of Compensability: Heart Attacks at Work

October 1st, 2012 by

Over eight years ago, my colleague Julie Ferguson blogged on the issue of workplace heart attacks: compensable or not? (Workers Comp Insider just passed its ninth birthday, but we’ve been too busy to celebrate.) Heart attacks present a unique challenge to the courts overseeing workers comp. The general standard requires that something unusually stressful happened at work in the moments leading up to the incident; if people are doing their usual work in the usual manner, the heart attack does not arise “out of” employment. If, on the other hand, the demands of work are unusually stressful and beyond the ordinary, the incident might well be compensable.
Today’s case raises the isse of whether anything that happens on Super Bowl Sunday can be ordinary. Colleen Robert’s husband (no first name given in the court documents) normally worked as a receiver for Waldbaum’s Supermarkets in New York. While the 2010 superbowl did not involve any New York teams – the contest featured the Indianapolis Colts versus the New Orleans Saints – Super Bowl Sundays are always busy for super markets. Roberts was asked to manage the store during the unusually busy day. At one point, he engaged in a verbal altercation with a customer (which in itself may not be unusual for those working in New York). Later that same day, while still at work, Roberts suffered a myocardial infarction and died.
The case was first deemed compensable, then denied by an administrative law judge, and then finally adjudicated by the Appelate Division of the New York Supreme Court. The judges noted that any death at work is presumed to be work related, but they also looked for a causal connection between the fatal attack and the work being performed. The autopsy revealed that Roberts suffered from extensive cardiovascular disease and thus was a good candidate for a myocardial infarction. In arguing against compensability, the defense pointed to the lapse of time between the verbal altercation with a customer and the attack itself. However, the judges noted that the entire day was full of stress and excitement for Roberts, who was not performing his usual job in the usual manner. They determined that the fatal heart attack was compensable.
Best Practices
In a similar case involving a supermarket in Massachusetts, a 70 year-old man with a pacemaker collapsed and died on his break. Because he had a known heart condition, and because of his age, the market assumed the fatality was not work related and failed to report it to their insurer. Months later, the widow filed for comp benefits. Due to the absence of timely interviews with co-workers and supervisors, and due to the “death at work” presumption, the case was deemed compensable.
The lesson for employers is both simple and straight-forward: report any and all incidents of heart problems immediately. Regardless of the state jurisdiction, the courts are likely to apply the same standards as in New York. And if a heart attack occurs on Super Bowl Sunday, defense may have a tough time proving it was just another working day.

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