SAIF v. Thompson – Heart Attack as Compensable Occupational Disease

Various types of illnesses and health conditions may be covered under workers’ compensation law. It will depend on whether the worker can show the condition was either an occupational disease or somehow work-related.heartattack

We tend to think of occupational diseases as being those such as mesothelioma (caused by exposure to asbestos) or silicosis (caused by exposure to silica dust) or other similar conditions. However, there is a growing area of case law that supports workers’ compensation claims for heart attacks and other heart-related conditions.In order for such an ailment to be compensable, the worker needs to show that, regardless of his or her physical condition prior to taking on the work, the illness arose in the course of and was related to his or her employment.

In some cases, obtaining workers’ compensation benefits for a heart attack might require the worker to show abnormal or extremely stressful working conditions. In situations where the causal connection isn’t apparent or obvious, the worker is probably going to need to establish a connection via unequivocal medical testimony by a qualified medical expert. Just because a worker dies of a heart attack at work doesn’t mean it’s work-related. But similarly, just because a heart attack occurs at home doesn’t mean it isn’t work-related. There are many factors that must be taken into account. 

One recent case in which an employee sought workers’ compensation benefits for a heart attack was that of SAIF v. Thompson, weighed by the Oregon Supreme Court.

Here, the state high court noted that no one disputed that claimant proved the predicate facts, giving rise to the presumption that this firefighter’s heart attack resulted form his work as a firefighter and thus it was an occupational disease. This resulted in a shift on the burden of proof to the employer, who sought to show the cause of plaintiff’s heart attack was not related to his work.

When the case went before the state workers’ compensation board, the panel found the employer had not met its proof burden. This order was later reversed by the court of appeals, but upon review by the state supreme court, was reinstated. The state supreme court ruled the appellate court incorrectly perceived the basis for the board’s order, for which there was a reasonable basis.

The facts of this case show that claimant, 44, started working for the fire department back in 1991. In 2010, while using the treadmill and elliptical machines at the fire station, he started to feel chest discomfort. Two days later, when he wasn’t on duty, he started to note discomfort in his neck and chest. He sought medical treatment, at which time a cardiologist informed him he’d suffered a heart attack. The doctor determined the patient had no known family history of cardiovascular disease nor did he have any of the common risk factors, such as obesity, high cholesterol, tobacco use, diabetes or hypertension.

Worker then filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, arguing the underlying condition that caused the heart attack was a compensable occupational disease. His case relied heavily on the “firefighters’ presumption” of causation for this type of condition, as set forth previously under state law.

An independent medical doctor opined firefighting isn’t known to cause atherosclerosis (a hardening of the arteries and the cause of the heart attack) per se, and chalked the condition up to aging in this case.

However, the board disagreed and awarded benefits, finding the employer hadn’t met its proof burden. Then in its reversal, the appeals court ruled it was plaintiff who failed to adequately rebut the claims asserted by the independent medical examiner. The state supreme court, in affirming the board’s original ruling, the court noted that one of the primary reasons the board found in claimant’s favor was that it found the independent medical examiner’s testimony internally inconsistent.

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

Additional Resources:

SAIF v. Thompson, Aug. 4, 2016, Oregon Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Murdered Hospital Tech’s Family Fights for Workers’ Comp, Aug. 8, 2016, Spartanburg Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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