The New Jersey Supreme Court decided last week in the case of Renner v. AT&T that a Workers’ Compensation claimant is not entitled to compensation for a cardiovascular injury, disease or death, unless the claimant can show that the cardiovascular injury resulted from a work effort or strain involving a substantial condition or event. This case has broad ramifications for New Jersey workers who suffer injuries such as heart attacks or pulmonary embolisms at work and seek workers’ compensation benefits for those injuries.
In this case, Cathleen Renner was an employee of AT&T who had a telecommuting agreement with the company. The agreement allowed Renner to work from her home office. On the evening of September 24, 2007, Cathleen worked from her home office for several hours, and continued working on a project through the night and into the next morning. Cathleen did not finish the project until 10:30 a.m. Approximately one hour later, Cathleen called EMS, who found her face down on the floor screaming that she could not breathe. EMS workers tried to resuscitate her, but were unsuccessful, and she was pronounced dead when she arrived at the hospital. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism.
Cathleen’s doctor, a board certified internal medicine physician, testified that Cathleen’s work effort of sitting at her desk for many hours contributed materially to a deep vein thrombosis and caused her death. In addition, he noted that the sedentary nature of her work also contributed to her death. A doctor for AT&T, however, testified that additional lifestyle factors contributed to the embolism, including obesity, birth control pill use, and age.
While the workers’ compensation judge accepted Cathleen’s doctor’s opinion as more probable, the New Jersey State Supreme Court reversed that decision. According to the Supreme Court, in order for a worker to receive compensation for a cardiovascular injury, the worker must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that in the injury or death was produced by a work effort or strain that is in excess of the “wear and tear” of the claimant’s daily living. In Cathleen’s case, the Court determined that, while she may have spent much of her time sitting, she was not required to do so by her job, and that she was free to stand, stretch, walk around, and leave her workstation. Therefore, the prolonged sitting was not compelled by her job and her injury was not compensable.
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