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What Do You Think: May Snowplow’s Wife Get Benefits for Husband’s Fatal Heart Attack? 

22 Oct, 2023 Chris Parker

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Islip, NY (WorkersCompensation.com) -- Death benefits are not awarded simply because a spouse died at work; the death must be causally related to the worker’s employment. But what if there were both work-related and non-work-related causes, such as a preexisting condition? 

A case involving a highway maintenance crew leader addresses the question. The crew leader had spinal surgery and was out of work until the start of January 2019. For the pain, he used medical marijuana and took Oxycodone. 

When he returned to work, the town had him perform demolition work on a facility bathroom. Feeling exhausted, he left work at 4 p.m. His boss, however, called him in later that night to clear snow from roadways.  

The next day, which was four days after he returned to work, the crew leader told his supervisor he was exhausted and having chest pains. Twenty minutes later, he was found unresponsive in a break room. He was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead.  

The autopsy report listed the cause of death as atherosclerotic and hypertensive cardiovascular disease secondary to acute Oxycodone intoxication.  

The spouse’s expert explained that cardiovascular disease directly contributed to the death. The expert also stated that the crew leader’s arduous work activities on the day in question increased his pulse and blood pressure, which resulted in insufficient blood supply to his heart, causing his death. 

For his part, the city’s expert acknowledged that work activities might have contributed to the death. 

The Workers’ Compensation Board concluded that the death was causally related to the worker’s employment and awarded death benefits. The city appealed. 

In New York, when an unwitnessed or unexplained death occurs during the course of employment, there is a presumption of compensability. If the employer provides evidence that the death is not work-related, the burden shifts to the claimant. 

Was the crew leader’s death compensable? 
A. No. There were multiple contributing causes of his death, including the employee’s pre-existing cardiac condition. 
B. Yes. Both experts cited work activities as a factor or possible factor in the death. 

If you selected B, you agreed with the court in Polonsky v.Town of Islip, No. 535424 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. App. Div. 10/12/23), which held that the crew leader’s death was causally related to work. 

The court noted that the autopsy report citing multiple contributing factors shifted the burden back to the spouse to show a causal connection between her husband’s death and his employment. However, the spouse was not required to demonstrate that the decedent's work-related illness was the sole or most direct cause of his death; she only had to show that work activities were a contributing factor. 

Here, the underlying cardiac condition and medications may have contributed to the death, the court stated. But the medical testimony also showed that the impact of work activities on the crew leader’s heart played a direct role. 

“[C]laimant's expert noted that decedent died only four days after returning to work and after experiencing fatigue occasioned by the exertional activities that decedent was asked to perform in a relatively short period of time,” the court wrote. 

The court affirmed the board’s decision. 

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