Friday, September 4, 2015
Judges: Bristol Township authority worked man to death
The day Robert Dietz died, he started work on a water main job at 7 a.m. Shortly after 9:30 p.m., he called his wife to tell her he was still on site, but expected to finish soon.
An hour later he was dead of a heart attack.
His widow, Judith Dietz, blamed his employer — Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority in Bristol Township — for her 48-year-old husband’s sudden death in November 2007. Robert Dietz worked as a field maintenance manager for 20 years for the public water authority, a job that involved heavy labor and long workdays.
Judith Dietz filed a workers’ compensation claim seeking benefits for herself and her child for a work-related death. Under the federal law, a widow with one child is entitled to an award of 60 percent of a worker’s wages and up to $3,000 for burial expenses.
On Friday, a three-judge Pennsylvania appeals court reversed a denial of her claim, finding that Dietz had proved her claim that a “causal connection” existed between the 14-hour workday involving heavy physical labor and her husband’s fatal heart attack.
The authority had denied liability and the complaint then went before a workers’ compensation judge.
At the subsequent hearing, Dietz testified that her husband’s job involved heavy labor, including jackhammering roads, repairing water main breaks and cutting tree roots out of the sewer system. He frequently worked longer than a 40-hour week and was always on call.
During their last conversation, Dietz told his wife that he had been doing roadwork and jackhammering for hours, and he and his coworkers were tired because they’d been on the job site a long time, according to court documents. Judith Dietz said her husband did not complain about feeling ill and there was nothing unusual about the conversation, court documents said.
About an hour after their conversation, one of Robert Dietz’s coworkers came to the house and took his wife to a hospital, where Judith Dietz learned he had died on the job, according to court documents. He was in full cardiac arrest when first responders arrived at the work site. There was no autopsy.
Judith Dietz testified that her husband smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for at least 13 years; in 2004 or 2005 the family doctor ordered a stress test and it showed no sign of heart disease. He took medication for high cholesterol for about a year. He was 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed about 200 pounds.
Dietz also presented deposition testimony from a board certified emergency medicine and thoracic surgeon who reviewed her husband’s available medical records, death certificate and his wife’s testimony.
He found the medical records showed that in 2002 Dietz was diagnosed with a mild narrowing of the leg arteries that did not require treatment. He also went to the hospital that year twice complaining of chest pain, but neither time was diagnosed with cardiac problems, according to court documents.
The doctor concluded that Dietz’s heart attack occurred when a sudden blood clot developed in a heart artery. A clot can develop as a result of cold weather, stress and physical labor that releases adrenaline, which tends to thicken the blood, and a small tear in the lining of the heart artery, which leads to sudden clotting, the court documents said.
But in a deposition submitted by LBCJMA, an internal medicine doctor with a focus on cardiology disputed Dietz’s expert. He said that as of 2000, Dietz had peripheral artery disease in his legs, which is a hardening of the arteries that restricts blood flow. At the time, the expert said, his doctor advised him to stop smoking, but he did not.
The authority’s expert witness claimed it is common for people with PAD to also have coronary artery disease and suggested that Dietz’s heart attack was inevitable. The doctor added there was nothing unusual about the work Dietz was doing the day he died, since he had performed the same job for 20 years.
The judge initially ruled that Dietz failed to show her husband’s heart attack was “causally related” to his job and denied the fatal claim petition. Dietz appealed and the Worker’s Compensation Appeal Board vacated the denial on the grounds that the judge applied an incorrect standard. The board found that Dietz had only to prove a connection between the death and the employment, not that he experienced more strenuous than usual duties.
The case was remanded to the original judge who, using the correct standard, granted the fatal claim petition, court documents show. The authority then appealed, and the appeal board reversed the judge’s decision, in part because neither the doctor nor Dietz’s wife knew what duties he performed on the day of his death and the lack of witness testimony from coworkers about his activity, the court documents note.
Judith Dietz filed another appeal, which resulted in the commonwealth judges’ review of the case. The panel found the doctor’s testimony for Robert Dietz supported the findings that working on a field maintenance crew for 14-plus hours caused the cardiac event and death and that the board erred when it required Dietz’s widow to show evidence of his specific duties the day of the heart attack.
“The overwhelming circumstantial evidence in this case shows that exertion from (Dietz’s) regular work activities over the course of a 14-hour workday caused his heart attack,” Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote in the decision.
The authority has 30 days to appeal the decision. Attorney James Downey III, who represents the LBCJMA, directed questions to the attorney for the authority’s insurance carrier, but did not provide the attorney’s name.