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Handleman v. Marwen Stores Corp.

Decided: March 17, 1969.


For reversal -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall and Haneman. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Proctor, J.


The primary issue in this workmen's compensation case is whether the County Court on appeal from the Workmen's Compensation Division has jurisdiction to expand the record on its own motion by appointing and hearing the testimony of an impartial medical expert.

Petitioner's husband, Harry Handleman, died of heart failure on February 6, 1966, five days after receiving injuries to his legs arising out of and in the course of his employment. In the Workmen's Compensation Division the sole issue was whether the injuries caused a pulmonary embolism which resulted in the heart failure. The judge of compensation resolved the conflicting medical testimony in favor of respondent, determining that death was attributable to occlusive thrombosis, a cause unconnected to decedent's leg injuries.

On February 1, 1966 the decedent, age 68, was employed by the respondent as a door-to-door salesman. While working that day, an automobile backed into the open door of the decedent's car while he was in the process of entering it, closing the door against decedent's legs. The shins of his legs were ground against the doorsill of his car causing contusions and abrasions, for which he received emergency treatment at a hospital. X-rays disclosed no fractures.

On the day after the accident he limped and complained of soreness in his legs. Bandages were worn for a short

period, although no time was lost from work. On February 6, 1966 the decedent visited some people in an apartment in Newark where he spent the evening, evidencing no physical discomfort. During the evening he left the apartment and walked down three flights of stairs to check the furnace in the basement. Within ten minutes after he left the apartment he was found dead at the foot of the basement stairs.

On petitioner's appeal to the County Court, Judge Antell, in the course of his de novo review of the record, examined the conflicting medical testimony at length and noted the following: One of the two medical witnesses for the respondent was Dr. Thomas Santoro, the Assistant Medical Examiner who had examined decedent's body in preparing the death certificate. He found no swelling or discoloration; no autopsy was performed. Dr. Santoro certified that death had been caused by occlusive coronary arteriosclerosis, and the judge of compensation in finding for respondent had relied in part on this conclusion. At the time of Dr. Santoro's examination, however, he had no knowledge of decedent's previous medical history of good health, or of the injuries he received on February 1. On cross-examination, attempts to show how Dr. Santoro would have evaluated these factors were denied by the judge of compensation upon respondent's objection. Nevertheless, Dr. Santoro conceded that to have known that decedent had sustained injuries to his legs five days prior to death would have been of assistance to him in forming his opinion.

Judge Antell concluded that Dr. Santoro's cross-examination had been erroneously curtailed, thus rendering his testimony "neutral in character, weighing neither in favor of the petitioner nor the respondent." (The record clearly accords with this conclusion.) The remaining medical testimony consisted only of the opposing conclusions of each party's expert. Dr. Pine, decedent's personal physician, testified for the petitioner in support of the pulmonary embolism theory. He said that "his general condition was good for a man of his age," with no history of heart trouble. Dr. York

for the respondent supported the occlusive coronary thrombosis theory. In analyzing Dr. York's testimony, Judge Antell found that it was based largely on a misconception of the nature of decedent's leg injuries. It was not until the admission of the accident report during Dr. York's testimony that it became clear that decedent had suffered a crush-type injury to his legs which had been pinned between the door and the sill of his car. Prior to this Dr. York had been under the impression that only decedent's shins had been injured, thus making an embolism unlikely. When confronted with the evidence of a crush-type injury he reasserted his previous position, saying that regardless of how the injury was sustained, there could be no thrombophlebitis causing a pulmonary embolism without inflammation and swelling, which Dr. Santoro had not found in his examination.

The County Court concluded: "[I]t is clear that Dr. York's opinion of causation was partly conditioned by his initial impression that there had been nothing more than a slight injury to the shinbone which could not have had any affect on the deep veins of the calf * * *. Notwithstanding this apparent flaw, I am of the opinion that the entire record as prepared in the Division should not satisfy the judicial conscience of a court which 'has the heavy obligation to bring a new mind to the case and conscientiously to reach its own independent determination,' Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 489, 498 [589, 598] (1965). The evidence does not sufficiently yield to analysis and the risk of 'injustice according to law' deters us from invoking the convenient dogma that petitioner has the burden of proof. Polulich v. J.R. [ G. ] Schmidt [ Tool Die and Stamping ] Co., 46 N.J. Super. 135, 146 (Cty. Ct. 1957), approved in State v. Lanza, 74 N.J. Super. 362, 374 (Law Div. [ App. Div ] 1962). * * * The circumstances are such that the services of an impartial medical expert are mandatory if the issues are to be resolved harmoniously with the aims of justice."

Judge Antell decided to retain the matter and receive the expert testimony in the County ...

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