When a work injury in Pennsylvania is not obvious, the injured worker must present expert medical testimony to explain how the work duties caused the work injury. This gets even more complicated when the condition at issue is caused by a combination of the work duties and pre-existing pathology, such as in the case of a heart attack (in that situation, the injured worker (known as the “Claimant”) must prove that the work-related cause is a substantial contributing factor to the disability).
Recently, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania addressed this issue in Bemis v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Perkiomen Grille Corp.). Here, the injured worker, a chef and manager, suffered a heart attack when he was moving kegs of beer and when he was lifting a heavy pot of chili. A Claim Petition was filed and the case was litigated before a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ). The WCJ noted that Claimant’s medical expert said the work duties “certainly could have” and “probably” caused the heart attack. The WCJ found this opinion “equivocal” and denied the Claim Petition. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) affirmed.
Upon further appeal, however, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed this decision. The Court observed that the WCJ erred by taking some statements by the doctor out of context. The mere fact an expert witness says “could have” or “probably” does not render an opinion equivocal. The entire testimony must be reviewed. When this is done, said the Court, it is clear the doctor found the heart attack was related to, and caused by, the work duties. Again, in this situation, the work duties do not have to be the sole cause, only a “substantial contributing factor.” As such, the Court felt the Claim Petition should have been granted, and remanded (sent the case back) to the WCJ, to grant the Claim Petition.