Fatal Claim Petition Granted in PA Without Evidence of Exact Work Duties

To win a Claim Petition in Pennsylvania, an injured worker must prove that the alleged work injury was caused by the work activities.  This is usually done through the testimony of the injured worker.  However, what about in the situation where the work injury is fatal, leaving nobody with direct and personal knowledge to testify?  Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently addressed this very issue.

In the case of Dietz v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority), the injured worker performed a physical job “that included jackhammering to dig up the road, repairing water main breaks and cutting tree roots out of the sewer system.”  This was according to the testimony of the widow, and this testimony was not disputed.  The widow added that this was the job every day (in other words, there were no days of desk work involved).  On November 7, 2007, the injured worker suffered a fatal heart attack at work after a long day on the job.

Since the Employer and the workers’ comp insurance carrier denied fatal claim benefits to the widow and surviving child (bless their little hearts, eh?), the widow filed a Fatal Claim Petition.  After hearing the evidence, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) found the widow generally credible, but denied the claim because it was not proven that the injured worker had a more strenuous than usual day on the day of his death.  However, this decision was reversed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) and the case remanded back to the WCJ.  The WCAB noted that there was no requirement of proving a more strenuous day; “a claimant need only prove a connection between the decedent’s employment and his death; showing a greater than normal exertion is unnecessary,” said the WCAB.

On remand, the WCJ reconsidered the evidence under the correct legal standard, and granted the Fatal Claim Petition.  Specifically, the WCJ found that the injured worker’s long workday caused the fatal heart attack.  Though few details were known about his specific duties on the day in question, the WCJ believed that was irrelevant, since the regular job duties entailed strenuous labor.

Upon appeal, the WCAB again reversed.  It was the opinion of the WCAB that the medical evidence offered by the widow was unsupported by any facts in the record, since the exact work duties that day were not known.  As such, the WCAB found that there was insufficient evidence to grant the Fatal Claim Petition.

This denial was then reversed by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, who found that the Fatal Claim Petition was properly granted.  The Court analyzed the case under existing case law:

”Our Supreme Court has explained that ‘where a decedent was performing his or her usual job assignment at the time of the fatal heart attack, and the connection between the work and the heart attack was supported by competent medical testimony, decedent’s claimant was entitled to compensation.’ . . . Where exertion leads to a fatal heart attack, there is no need to pinpoint the exact work duty which caused the exertion. . . In other words, ‘[i]t is not necessary to prove and identify the precise work details which caused a heart death that resulted from decedent’s exceptional work activity.’”

Since the credited testimony of the widow supported that every work day involved strenuous labor, and the record showed that the day in question was a long work day, the WCAB erred by reversing the granting of the Fatal Claim Petition.  The evidence of record was, in fact, sufficient to support the connection between the heart attack and the work duties.