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In a long awaited decision, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has overturned an award in the matter ofJames P. Renner v AT&T (A-71-11) (068744). The case has drawn national attention because it dealt with a stroke claim from an employee who telecommuted quite regularly.
Cathleen Renner worked for AT&T for 25 years as a salaried manager. She telecommuted three days a week from home and worked the other two days in the office. On September 24, 2007, Ms. Renner worked on a project due the next day. She spoke with her husband, who was on a business trip, around 11:00 p.m. and told him that she would be working through the night. Her work was often deadline driven, and she would put in whatever hours were necessary to get the work done on time.
Her son testified that she started working when they got home from dinner on September 24, 2007. She was still working when he went to bed around 10:30 p.m.
At 7:50 a.m. she took her son to catch a school bus and grabbed her leg in pain while walking out of the house. At 9:00 a.m. she told a co-worker by email that she did not feel well but would complete the project. She did in fact complete the project at 10:30 a.m. and sent an email confirming this to her co-workers.
At 11:34 a.m. she called the Edison Township EMS saying she could not breathe. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital from a pulmonary embolism. An autopsy confirmed that she died of a pulmonary thromboembolism that became lodged in the main trunk of her pulmonary artery. Her husband filed a dependency claim which eventually led to an award for petitioner at both the Division level and the Appellate Division level.
Petitioner’s expert, Dr. Leon Waller, testified that sitting at her desk the day before and day of her death contributed to her deep vein thrombosis. He said that the sedentary nature of her work “was the precipitant in her getting a pulmonary embolism which resulted in her demise.” He gave an opinion that the cause of death was a pulmonary embolism caused by deep vein thrombosis. He said that the clot was large and probably took hours to form, probably originating in her leg.
Respondent’s expert, Dr. William Kritzberg, said Ms. Renner’s death was caused by her morbid obesity, birth control pills, age and an enlarged heart. He believed that her risk factors contributed more to her death than extended sitting at her desk. He also disagreed that there was evidence of a clot in the legs or deep vein thrombosis.
The Supreme Court reviewed the relevant statute, N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2 and the leading decision ofHellwig v. J.F. Rast & Co., 110 N.J. 37 (1995). It said that this section of the law “reinstated the presumption that coronary-artery disease and heart attacks are the result of natural causes.” Further, the Court summarized the operative standard:
To sustain a Workers’ Compensation petition premised upon cardiovascular injury, a claimant must demonstrate that the harm was caused by a work effort or strain involving a substantial condition that exceeds ‘the wear and tear of the claimant’s daily living’ outside of the claimant’s work responsibilities. Hellwig, supra., 110N.J. at 42; see also N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2.
The Supreme Court interestingly did not focus on a comparison between the decedent’s non-work activities and her work activities. Her husband had testified that his wife was very active with her children both in and outside the home. Instead, the Court focused on the language regarding a “substantial condition.” The Court said, “Based on this record, we conclude that there has been no showing that Cathleen’s death resulted from a work effort or strain involving a substantial condition or event.”
The Court found that her extended sitting while working at home “does not constitute a ‘work effort or strain involving a substantial condition, event or happening’ to support a compensable cardiovascular claim.” It commented that Ms. Renner “was not confined to a specific space or instructed not to move from her workstation.” The Court reasoned that Ms. Renner “was free to take breaks, during which she could stand, stretch, leave her workstation for a bathroom break or refreshments, or briefly exercise.”
The case is important to practitioners because there are precious few reported workers’ compensation cases involving injuries during telecommuting. It is also important because it focused on that part of the definition on cardiovascular claims involving proof of a substantial condition, event or happening.