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Hellwig v. Rast

Decided: March 31, 1988.

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



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 215 N.J. Super. 247 (1987).

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Stein, Justice.

Stein

We granted certification, 107 N.J. 636 (1987), primarily to resolve a conflict between two Appellate Division decisions that construe the provisions of N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2, a section of the 1979 amendments to the Workers' Compensation law that imposes specific requirements for proof of claims based on injury or death from cardiovascular or cerebral vascular causes. L. 1979, c. 283, § 3.

The Division of Workers' Compensation granted the claim of decedent's widow for dependency benefits. Before the Appellate Division, decedent's employer argued that the claim should have been disallowed because no evidence had been submitted to prove that the decedent's work effort that allegedly contributed to his death from coronary disease was more strenuous than his ordinary daily work effort. The employer contended that such proof was mandated by N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2, which provides in part:

[T]he claimant shall prove by a preponderance of the credible evidence that the injury or death was produced by the work effort or strain involving a substantial condition, event or happening in excess of the wear and tear of the claimant's daily living and in reasonable medical probability caused in a material degree the cardiovascular or cerebral vascular injury or death resulting therefrom.

Material degree means an appreciable degree or a degree substantially greater than de minimis. [Emphasis added.]

The employer also relied on the opinion of another panel of the Appellate Division in Prusecki v. Branch Motor Express, 206 N.J. Super. 39 (1985), which held that the precipitating work

effort in cardiovascular claim cases must be compared with both the worker's daily home activity and ordinary work effort to support a conclusion that the injury or death was caused in a material degree by the work effort. Id. at 49.

In this case, the Appellate Division disagreed with the holding in Prusecki. It concluded that the statutory phrase "in excess of the wear and tear of claimant's daily living" was intended to insure that the critical work effort was more strenuous than claimant's daily activities "exclusive of work." Hellwig v. J.F. Rast & Co., Inc., 215 N.J. Super. 247, 251 (1987). We affirm.

I

The facts, which are substantially uncontroverted, and the procedural history are fully set forth in the Appellate Division opinion:

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 at 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 § 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. [215 N.J. Super. at 248-50.]

The Appellate Division acknowledged that the evidence before it was not sufficient to permit the finding required by Prusecki, supra, 206 N.J. Super. at 49, that the work effort that led to the employee's death was in excess of that ordinarily and regularly encountered in his workplace. 215 N.J. Super. at 250. The court concluded, however, that such a finding was not

required by the statute. After reviewing essentially the same decisions considered by the Prusecki court, as well as the legislative history of the 1979 amendment, the Appellate Division panel determined that

the Legislature intended no more than to require that the cardiovascular accident be caused by the work effort or strain involving a substantial condition in excess of the "wear and tear of the claimant's daily living" exclusive of work. [215 N.J. Super. at 251.]

We come to the same conclusion based on our review of N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2, in the context of the judiciary's prolonged struggle with the standard of compensability in workers' compensation cases for illness or death caused by coronary disease.

II

The Appellate Division panels in this case and in Prusecki agreed that the correct interpretation of N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2 depends to a significant degree on a trilogy of workers' compensation cases involving coronary disease: Seiken v. Todd Dry Dock, Inc., 2 N.J. 469 (1949); Ciuba v. Irvington Varnish & Insulator Co., 27 N.J. 127 (1958); and Dwyer v. Ford Motor Co., 36 N.J. 487 (1962). In Seiken petitioner was a shipyard foreman who did heavy maintenance work about the yard and piers. His first encounter with symptoms of heart disease occurred when he experienced severe chest pains and shortness of breath while he and a co-worker were lifting a piece of scrap metal, weighing between two hundred and two hundred fifty pounds, onto an adjacent truck. According to the evidence, petitioner's work effort at the time of the incident was consistent with his ordinary and routine duties. Reversing a lower court decision granting compensation, this Court referred to the "presumption that injury or death from heart disease is the result of natural physiological causes." 2 N.J. at 475. In order for a claimant to prove that the employment was a contributing factor, the Court held that

something of an unusual strain or exertion beyond the mere employment itself is required to establish liability; the mere ...


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