Heart Attack from Stress at Work a Claim Under PA Workers’ Comp

Under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, mental injuries caused by a psychic, or mental, incident, require an injured worker to prove that the psychic, or mental, onset was an “abnormal working condition.” We have discussed psychological injuries under PA workers’ comp previously. We call these types of cases “mental/mental” cases.

But, what about a mental, or emotional, onset that leads to a physical injury (what we call a “mental/physical” case)? Back in 1981, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided Krawchuk v. Philadelphia Electric Company, wherein the Court granted workers’ comp benefits to an employee who suffered a heart attack at home, after having a great deal of stress at work. This was followed, however, by the Court’s decision in Davis v. Workmen’s Compensation Appeal Board (Swarthmore Borough) in 2000, finding that abnormal working conditions were required in a case with an emotional or mental onset. Finally, the Court clarified things in 2005 in the case of Pankyo v. Worker’s Compensation Appeal Board (U.S. Airways) (Pankyo).

In the Pankyo case, the Court found that the holding in Davis was limited. Specifically, the Court noted, “given the facts in Davis, that case only stands for the proposition that where a claimant suffers a psychic injury with attendant physical symptoms, the claimant must meet the abnormal working relations test.” On the other hand, where the injury itself is physical (again, such as a heart attack), the “abnormal working conditions” requirement does not apply (even though the onset was a mental incident).

This area was addressed recently by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in Janet Little, dependent of David Little, Deceased v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (B&L Ford/Chevrolet). Here, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) applied the “abnormal working conditions” test when the claimant suffered a fatal heart attack two days after he was notified he was being terminated from his job (a few months after claimant suffered a physical work injury). As such, the WCJ denied the Fatal Claim Petition.

While the Commonwealth Court of PA did agree the WCJ erred in using the “abnormal working conditions” test, and that abnormal working conditions were not required to be shown in this situation, the Court still affirmed the decision of the WCJ. An injured worker in PA must prove the injury was suffered in the “scope and course” of his or her employment; here, the injured worker was being terminated from employment at the time of the incident. The Court found this unrelated to his work duties, and agreed with the WCJ that the Fatal Claim Petition was correctly denied.