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Pennsylvania Court Grants Fatal Claim Petition Without Requiring Details of Exact Work Duties on the Day of the Fatal Injury

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania addressed a case involving a fatal injury to a worker.  To successfully present a workers’ compensation claim in Pennsylvania, an injured worker must prove the alleged work injury was suffered in the course and scope of employment.  If the injury is fatal, it presents a challenge regarding who can testify as to the accident.

Judith Dietz filed a fatal claim petition on behalf of her husband, Robert Dietz, who worked for Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority (“Employer”) as a field maintenance worker for 20 years. Mr. Dietz’s job included jackhammering to dig up roads, repairing water main breaks, and cutting tree roots out of the sewer system. At the age of 48, Mr. Dietz suffered a fatal heart attack while working on the job.

Mrs. Dietz alleged in her petition that her husband’s work caused his heart attack and resulting death. She sought fatal claim benefits on behalf of herself and her child.  After Employer filed an answer denying liability, the petition was assigned to a WCJ.

Mrs. Dietz testified that on the day of the fatal heart attack, her husband worked a very long day.  A medical specialist opined that Mr. Dietz’s long hours of physical labor led to his fatal heart attack.  The doctor made clear that but for the long workday, Mr. Dietz would not have had a fatal heart attack.

In opposition to Mrs. Dietz’s fatal claim petition, Employer presented the deposition testimony of a cardiology specialist.  After reviewing Mr. Dietz’s medical records, this doctor stated that Mr. Dietz had coronary artery disease, and while he had a strenuous job, Mr. Dietz’s death was not caused by his job duties because he worked the same job for 20 years.  In other words, the doctor stated that Mr. Dietz would have suffered a heart attack at some point, and that it was “serendipitous” that the heart attack happened at work, since there was nothing that particular day that caused additional stress.

The Workers’ Compensation Judge found that Mrs. Dietz’s testimony was credible but that Mr. Dietz’s heart attack was not causally related to his job.  Mrs. Dietz appealed, and the Board vacated and remanded.  The Board stated that Mrs. Dietz was only required to prove a connection between the decedent’s employment and his death.  She was not required to show a greater than normal exertion.

The Workers’ Compensation Judge reconsidered and granted the fatal claim petition. The court focused on the length of the workday and the fact that while Mr. Dietz may have been predisposed to a heart attack, it was actually the length of the workday that stressed his body, triggering the event.  Employer appealed, and the Board reversed the decision, on the ground that the testimony supporting the finding that the long workday caused the heart attack was unsupported. Mrs. Dietz appealed.

The appellate court stated that the Board erred when it reversed the grant of fatal claim benefits.  The rule is that a claimant must show the injury was causally related to employment.  Here, Mrs. Dietz contended that her evidence sufficiently established Mr. Dietz’s job duties, and the Board should not have required evidence of his specific duties on the day of his heart attack.

The appellate court cited the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in explaining that when a usual job assignment has been performed at the time of a fatal heart attack, and medical testimony supports the connection between the work and the heart attack, the decedent’s claimant is entitled to compensation.  Here, Mrs. Dietz testified that Mr. Dietz regularly jackhammered and cut tree roots. His job was very physical.

On the day that Mr. Dietz suffered his fatal heart attack, he had worked an extremely long day.  Although there were scant details regarding Mr. Dietz’s final workday, these were unnecessary due to the nature of his job.  The Board erred when it required that Mrs. Dietz present evidence from Mr. Dietz’s co-workers regarding what happened when he collapsed.  The court stated that this would make it difficult for a claimant to prevail on a claim petition when the decedent worked alone.  Here, the circumstantial evidence showed that exertion from regular work activities caused Mr. Dietz’s heart attack.

The appellate court reversed the order of the Board.

At Needle Law, our workers’ compensation attorneys advocate on behalf of injured workers, and in the case of fatal injuries, their spouses and families.  If you or a loved one suffered an injury in the course and scope of your employment, contact our office today for a no-obligation consultation at 570-344-1266.

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