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Hellwig v. Rast

Decided: February 23, 1987.

LILLIAN HELLWIG, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
v.
J. F. RAST & COMPANY, INC., RESPONDENT-APPELLANT



On appeal from the Division of Workers' Compensation.

Shebell and Stern. The opinion of the court was delivered by Shebell, J.A.D. Stern, J.A.D. (concurring).

Shebell

Appellant-employer, J.F. Rast & Company, Inc., appeals a judgment of the Division of Workers' Compensation, awarding Lillian Hellwig dependency benefits for the death of her husband, Thomas Hellwig, who died while working as a steamfitter on July 31, 1983. The judge of compensation found death was due to a myocardial infarction caused by stress and strain of work. Appellant contends that the proofs were inadequate to sustain a finding that decedent suffered a compensable cardiac injury within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2. We disagree and affirm the award of dependency benefits.

The employer does not dispute the facts presented in furtherance of the dependency petition; rather it argues that even accepting those facts the requirements of ยง 7.2 are not satisfied. The facts demonstrate that decedent was on his first day back at work at the Anheuser-Busch plant in Newark, New Jersey, after a seven to nine week layoff during which he had mostly remained at home doing very little. He would sit in the backyard, watch television, occasionally ride a lawnmower to cut the lawn, or go to the local store. He also reported to the union hall several times a week in an effort to obtain work apparently without success. His home and automobile were air conditioned.

The decedent reported to work at 8 a.m. on the day of his death and was assigned the task of repairing a pasteurizer, a large machine with a series of tanks approximately 10 feet high and 30 feet long. The work was on an upper level which had to

be reached by stooping under conveyors and climbing six to eight steps of a ladder situated at a 70 degree angle. Together, decedent and a coemployee raised 20 to 25 stainless steel doors on top of the pasteurizers to check for leaking sprayheads. These doors weighed approximately 35 to 50 pounds and were lifted from a cramped position, each worker using one hand, because conveyors were overhead. The temperature in the work area was in the 80s and the humidity was high. The decedent was sweating while carrying out the inspections.

After the inspections he and his coworker walked to the maintenance shop which was down one floor and approximately 1,000 feet away. There they obtained a welding machine, a large bottle of gas and a few hundred feet of welding lead which they moved in two trips from the maintenance shop to the freight elevator. The welding machine had three wheels and weighed approximately 300 pounds and was awkward. This required the workers to push and pull it to the elevator. Decedent carried approximately 100 pounds of the welding lead to the elevator and the two then moved the equipment from the elevator to the pasteurizer by bending under conveyors and pushing and pulling the equipment. At approximately 9:30 they took a 15 to 20 minute coffee break and then decedent went to the bathroom. When he returned he made a couple of more trips up and down the ladder. His coemployee began welding and asked decedent to go down the ladder and adjust the welding machine. The coworker later noted that the machine had been adjusted but that the decedent did not return. This caused the coworker to look over the side where he saw decedent lying unconscious with other workers ministering to him.

Decedent did not regain consciousness and an autopsy revealed "[a]therosclerotic cardio-vascular disease, severe; acute inferior wall myocardial infarct." The medical expert called on behalf of petitioner testified that decedent died of an acute myocardial infarction which occurred when the work effort produced an increase in the heart rate and blood pressure

causing a rupture of an atheromatous plaque which in turn caused an occlusion of the blood supply to the heart, resulting in arrhythmia and death. This doctor considered that the plaque probably ruptured during the work effort before the coffee break and that the infarction occurred at the time of death. The testimony of the employer's medical expert was that the decedent's death was caused by an episode of fatal ventricular fibrillation which was the result of the natural progression of the coronary artery disease from which he suffered. This expert was of the opinion that the autopsy did not demonstrate an infarction.

The judge of compensation found that decedent's work effort was strenuous and in excess of the wear and tear of daily living which he found to be quite sedentary. He was led to the "inescapable conclusion that the work effort was significantly and substantially in excess thereof." The judge found that the effort caused in a material degree an infarction which led to petitioner's sudden death. He found the opinion of the expert called on behalf of decedent to be far more acceptable than that of the employer's.

The scope of our review of factual determinations of a judge of compensation is limited to whether the findings could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence present in the record giving due regard to the opportunity of the judge to determine the witness's credibility and also to the judge's expertise in workers' compensation matters. Close v. Kordulak Brothers, 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965). Applying this test, we find no cause to disturb the judge's factual findings or his conclusion that the opinion of decedent's ...


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