Sullwold v. Salvation Army – Work-at-Home Heart Attack Compensable

Working from home is part of a growing trend that saves workers the commute and saves companies money. treadmill1.jpg

According to the American Community Survey, telecommuting has risen nearly 80 percent between 2005 and 2012, meaning some 2.6 percent of Americans are now working from home. That figure includes full-time employees, as well as those who only partially log hours from their own address.

While an increasingly mobile workforce has had a number of positives, it does have the potential to muddy the waters as far as workers’ compensation is concerned. That’s because it’s much easier to prove an injury was work-related when it happens on the job site. But when injuries occur at someone’s home – albeit, when they are working – it may be tougher to make a case.

Our experienced Asheville workers’ compensation attorneys recognize the basic elements are still the same: That the injury occurred in the course and scope of one’s work. Negligence on the part of the company need not be proven, and neither is the worker’s own alleged negligence.

In the recent case of Sullwold v. Salvation Army, worker was a high-level executive for a large non-profit organization who died of a heart attack while exercising at home on his treadmill. The company had allowed him to work remotely from home, and his widow later filed a claim for workers’ compensation. She alleged his work was so stressful that it caused or significantly contributed to his heart attack.

Employee was responsible for overseeing investor relations and financial interests of the organization’s eastern division, which at that time was valued at around $2.5 billion. He was required to travel frequently, and had reportedly been under a great deal of pressure in recent years. His doctor had ordered him to exercise regularly to improve his health.

On the day he died, he began working from his home office around 8:30 a.m. and he worked until about 3:30 p.m., at which time he took a break to walk on the treadmill. He brought his work phone with him. Roughly a half hour later, his wife found him unconscious on the floor, treadmill still running, work phone lying next to him. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Although he had not reported work-related stress to his doctors, he had indicated he suffered a number of recent anxiety attacks, which he told his wife and co-workers were the result of being “overloaded.” His wife and co-workers also testified he worked long hours, traveled frequently and was under enormous pressure amid the recent economic downturn.

The workers’ compensation commission in Maine (where he lived) granted widow’s petition, finding work stress was a major causal factor in his death.

His employer appealed, but the finding was affirmed by both the appellate division, as well as the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Whether an injury occurs in the course of one’s employment depends on the time, place and circumstances under which an injury occurs. Here, although worker was home, he had been granted permission to work remotely and his injury occurred during work hours and while he was using a phone given to him by his employer for work purposes.

The second element – whether an injury arose out of the course of employment – depends on whether there is some causal connection between the conditions in which employee worked and the injury, or that the injury was in some proximate way caused by the work. Here, the cause of death was a heart attack. In many cases, this may not be considered compensable – unless claimant can prove work stress significantly contributed to the condition. Here, the state high court found widow presented sufficient evidence to prove this point.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Sullwold v. Salvation Army, Jan. 22, 2015, Maine Supreme Judicia ourt

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Moreau v. Transp. Ins. Co. – Asbestos Illness Medical Expense Reimbursement Disputed, Jan. 30, 2015, Asheville Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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