Presumption that death on the job was work-related held not to apply in Virginia comp appeal

In Puller v. Fairfax County School Board, No. 0886-11-4 (Va. App. 2011), the Court affirmed the Commission's denial of workers' compensation benefits to a widow whose husband died of a heart attack while performing his job as a mail delivery truck driver.
The decedent, who worked for the School Board, was found dead in the cargo area of his mail truck, with numerous burns on his body from the metal floor of the truck. Following an autopsy, the state medical examiner reported that the cause of death was hypertensive and aatheroscleratic cardiovascular disease, and that the skin changes were postmortem, due to contact with a hot surface.

The police investigation found that the floor of the mail truck's cargo area could reach the temperature of 120 degrees. The police concluded that the decedent died of a heart attack while backing his van, then fell to the floor of the van where he sustained the burns.

The widow filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits, on the theory that working in the July heat caused the heart attack which killed the decedent. She supported her claim with opinions from a cardiologist and an internist that the cardiac arrest was caused by the extraordinary heat in the vehicle.

The employer offered the opinion of a cardiologist that the ambient temperatures on that day were fairly average, and that the cardiac arrest was the product of risk factors including hypertension, diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, and cigarette smoking. The cardiologist concluded that the decedent's death was not work related, and resulted from natural causes and that the burns were as a result of post-mortem heat exposure. The employer also offered the decedent's medical records, which indicated that he had been transported to a hospital for chest pains, one month before his death.

The deputy commissioner denied the claim for benefits, and that ruling was affirmed by the Commission.

On appeal, the Court considered whether the claimant, under these circumstances, was entitled to a presumption that the decedent's death was work related. There is a presumption that a death at the workplace is work related, but it applies only to cases where the employee is found dead at his place of work or nearby, and even then, only when no plausible inference suggests that the accident might be noncompensable. That is, the only rational inference to be drawn must be that death arose out of an in the course of employment. No presumption can be said to arise where an employee suffers from pre-existing heart disease and subsequently dies of cardiac arrest while at work.

Here, since it was undisputed that the decedent had a pre-existing heart condition and that he died of cardiac arrest while at work, the Commission correctly ruled that no presumption applied. The Court also concluded that there was sufficient evidence supporting the Commission's decision as to the cause of death.

This case illustrates the importance of careful review of the decedent's medical records in any workers' compensation claim arising from a death on the job.