On Wednesday, July 30, 2014, the Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the earlier decisions of both the original Judge of Compensation and the Superior Court in the matter of Renner v. AT&T. The Supreme Court decided in a unanimous vote of 5-0 supporting the Opinion of Judge Ariel A. Rodriquez, which denied workers' compensation benefits to the claimant for an embolism suffered by his late wife while working at home for AT&T.
This Supreme Court of New Jersey decision is clearly favorable to the employer and shows a reluctance of the Supreme Court to give the benefit of the doubt in favor of the petitioner merely in sympathy or as part of a greater remedial purpose of the Act. At first glance, it may appear that this holding may be of use to employers in "occupational" cases where petitioners claim that their ordinary work activities have precipitated a wide array of orthopedic repetitive stress injuries or pulmonary conditions. However, the decision in this case may be of limited scope; the unique facts and cardiovascular claims may not be applicable to occupational injury claims or occupational claims under N.J.S.A. 34:15-31.
To briefly review the facts: the decedent was working from home on the night and morning prior to her death from a pulmonary embolism purportedly caused from a blood clot in the leg due to deep vein thrombosis (DVT). She had spent the night at home working until at least 12:26 a.m., and possibly throughout the entire night, as her son saw her working at home at 7:00 a.m. She worked until she completed the project at issue at 10:30 a.m. While working, she performed activities including: sending e-mails, reading, making phone calls, and participating in conferences. About an hour after she completed her last e-mail, the decedent called for an ambulance, and upon the arrival of EMS, resuscitative measures were not successful.
The Workers' Compensation Judge below found in favor of the petitioner-widow. The judge adopted the petitioner's expert's testimony that the work effort of sitting at her desk for the extended period of time contributed in a material degree to the DVT and her death. The sedentary nature of the job was found to be the precipitant in the pulmonary embolism.
The employer appealed on the basis that there was no evidence that the deceased’s work activities exceeded the wear and tear caused by her normal non-work activities and there was insufficient evidence that the work activities caused the embolism.
The Supreme Court's decision focused on the fact that this was a cardiovascular or cerebral vascular case, and was thus governed specifically by N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2. In 1979, the legislature enacted this provision specifically to address cardiovascular or cerebral vascular cases to ensure that employers would not be responsible for cardiac incidents that as a matter of circumstance happen at work. The provision was founded upon a presumption that heart attacks are caused by natural causes, and it required more reliable proof of the connection between the work effort and the cardiac event - particularly, that the work effort or strain was in excess of the wear and tear of the petitioner’s daily living.
The Supreme Court held that the act of the extended sitting while the decedent conducted her professional responsibilities at home did not constitute a work effort or strain to support a compensable cardiovascular claim, as Section 7.2 required. It appears that the Court also found against the petitioner on a factual basis of whether it was even believable that she was engaged in sedentary sitting in the first place. The Court noted that since she was working from home, she was not confined to a particular space, she could take breaks, she had control over her body position, and she could move about and exercise. Therefore, the court held that prolonged sitting was not compelled by her job.
The applicability of the decision in this case to other cases may be limited by the unique facts of the work at home situation, where the alleged exertion itself was prolonged inactivity. The Court did not even get to the step in the analysis in measuring the intensity of the work effort against the petitioner’s normal activities, as the Court found no work effort or strain in the first place. However, it should be noted that the employer’s expert opined that the deceased’s daily life was obviously sedentary at home and in her daily activities outside work.
In summary, the reaching implication of the Court’s decision may be limited only to cardio or cerebral vascular cases under 34:15-7.2. Also, the facts here likely made the case unique with the alleged work effort or stress being only an implication of prolonged sitting, with the twist that the decedent was working from home.