You Think Job Stress Killed Your Spouse: Can You Collect Workers’ Compensation Death Benefits?
Some 40 percent of U.S. workers report that their job is “very or extremely stressful,” according to a report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Against this backdrop, we ask: What if you think excessive job stress literally killed your spouse? Can you, as a surviving spouse, collect workers’ compensation death benefits?
In a ruling that lays out the difficulties of proving such claims, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently said “no” to a widow whose 51-year-old husband died of a heart attack. But the court’s decision is fact-specific and is not the final word on whether such claims can succeed under different circumstances.
In Touchstone v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Touchstone and Associates), Andrew Touchstone (a bit ironically) was a workers’ compensation attorney who founded his own law firm. His workload, by his wife’s description, was aggressive ― he started his workday at 9 a.m. and often ended it at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., with some breaks for dinner, the gym, and sometimes a nap.
Touchstone had been treating for anxiety since before his three children were born. (They were in college/graduate school when he died.) He was also a smoker, took high blood pressure medication, and had underwent a heart ablation procedure several years before his death.
Touchstone’s wife argued that the fatal heart attack he suffered on Oct. 21, 2014, was caused by job stress, and in particular, financial stress that he had been under.
She presented multiple witnesses to support her claim.
- A workers’ compensation attorney, who knew Touchstone for 23 years and rented office space to him, testified that he worked late, even staying at the office overnight sometimes. He also testified that Touchstone was normally gregarious and friendly, but had become short-tempered and angry in the months preceding his death.
- The lawyer who took over Touchstone’s cases after he died testified that he had been concerned and stressed because conservative court decisions and legislative changes were making it increasingly difficult for him to earn a living.
- An attorney employed by Touchstone testified that a union had started referring cases to the firm in 2014, but that the cases required an immediate outlay of capital. He testified that Touchstone was becoming increasingly worried about cash flow.
The widow also presented testimony from a doctor who concluded that the “anxiety, urgency, agitation, and anger” that Touchstone experienced from his work was a type of psychosocial stress and was a substantial contributing factor in his death. The doctor testified that a trigger, such as anger, doubles the risk of sudden cardiac arrest when it occurs within two hours of irregular arrhythmia.
But a doctor who presented testimony on behalf of the law firm’s workers’ compensation insurer disputed the widow’s medical witness and instead opined that Touchstone died from sleep apnea or a hypertensive crisis. In support of his opinion, the doctor cited a litany of medical problems including that Touchstone smoked, was overweight, had a supraventricular tachycardia, which was treated successfully in 1991, and suffered from chronic hypertension and dyslipidemia. In addition, Touchstone’s cholesterol was 239, and his triglycerides and LDL cholesterol were high.
After hearing the evidence, the workers’ compensation judge ultimately concluded that the widow did not meet her burden in establishing that financial strain was a substantial contributing factor in Touchstone’s death and that she did not put forth unequivocal medical evidence linking his heart attack to his job stress. Among the judge’s findings: Touchstone “kept business to himself,” and there was no tangible evidence supporting the witnesses’ impressions that financial matters were causing his behavioral changes. Accordingly, the judge denied the widow’s claim.
The widow appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, which affirmed the judge’s decision. She then appealed to the Commonwealth Court.
In ruling against the widow, the Commonwealth Court noted that it is well-established under Pennsylvania law that the workers’ compensation judge is “the ultimate fact finder … and is free to accept or reject the testimony of any witness, including a medical witness, in whole or in part.” The judge, though, does not have the discretion to capriciously disregard competent evidence without a reasonable explanation or without specifically discrediting it.
Here, the Commonwealth Court found that the workers’ compensation judge had acted appropriately and had meticulously explained the reasoning behind her decision:
The [workers’ compensation judge] did not capriciously disregard evidence. Rather, the [judge], as fact finder, heard the testimony firsthand, made credibility determinations, and weighed the evidence presented. The [judge] thoroughly explained her thought process. … Accordingly, we cannot find that the [judge] capriciously disregarded evidence.
Unfortunately, Touchstone’s widow will not receive workers’ compensation death benefits. However, the outcome of this case was driven by the widow’s inability to prove her claim. The decision does not bar other widows/widowers from receiving death benefits if they can prove that their spouse died from job-related stress.
As always, if you believe that you may have a workers’ compensation claim, we recommend that you consult with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney who can ensure that you receive all benefits to which you are legally entitled.