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Heart attack at work? Be prepared to prove stress wasn’t the cause

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The New York workers’ compensation system was set up as a no-fault system to compensate employees injured while working. There’s a powerful presumption under the system that any death that occurs during working hours is covered, at least if there’s an arguable claim that it was work-related.

That’s why employees who have fatal heart attacks at work may sometimes be covered if their survivors claim work-related stress caused the attack. Then, it’s up to the workers’ compensation carrier and employer to prove stress didn’t cause the heart attack.

Recent case: Renee Thompson’s husband worked as a sheriff’s department corrections officer and had a history of heart problems and cardiac arrhythmia. In May 2002, shortly before his death, he went to the emergency room for chest pain and was released. The next day, he saw his family doctor and complained of faintness and dizziness. The doctor excused him from firearms training, which he said was stressful.

At the beginning of an overnight shift, he learned that he’d have to take the firearms training soon anyway. At the end of his shift he collapsed and died. The cause of death was listed as ventricular arrhythmia.

His widow filed for, and was granted, benefits. The sheriff’s department appealed and the benefits were overturned.

But she persisted and appealed to the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division. It reinstated the workers’ compensation award, concluding that there is a long-standing presumption that a workplace death is compensable. It is up to the employer to prove that the death was not work related. Since there was no evidence either way in this case, the presumption won out. (In the Matter of Renee Thompson v. Genesee County Sheriff’s Department, Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, 2007)

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