Ohio: Cautious Medical Testimony Dooms Death Benefits Claim Related to “Poster Child for Heart Disease”

An Ohio appellate court recently found that medical evidence presented in a death claim case was too speculative to support the required causal connection between a worker’s fatal heart attack and her employment [see Davis v. Ryan, 2012 Ohio 324, 2012 Ohio App. LEXIS 275 (Jan. 31, 2012)]. While one of the decedent’s physicians indicated her fatal heart attack could have been precipitated by overexertion, the doctor also indicated that he could not actually opine that the decedent’s last actions had actually led to such overexertion. 

The decedent had a pre-existing cardiac condition and had already undergone double coronary bypass surgery one year earlier. At the time of her death, the decedent was 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighed 317 pounds, and had a body mass index of 45, enough to be considered morbidly obese. She smoked two packs of cigarettes per day and suffered from a multitude of heath problems, including systemic hypertension, reactive airway disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obstructive sleep apnea. One of her doctors described decedent as a “poster child for heart disease.” The doctor indicated further that decedent “was at risk for having a heart attack at any point.”

On the morning of her death, the decedent attempted to park in her usual handicap parking spot in the parking lot immediately behind her employer’s premises. The spot was blocked by a construction truck, so the decedent drove to the employer’s remote parking lot one block away. She exited her vehicle and crossed the street adjacent to the remote lot where she saw a co-worker. When the decedent indicated her plight, the co-worker offered to have the construction truck moved. The decedent returned to her car. When the co-worker returned to tell the decedent that the truck was being moved, he found her unresponsive in her vehicle. No post-mortem was done, but the cause of death on decedent’s death certificate listed acute myocardial infarction as the cause.

The Bureau of Workers’ Compensation ultimately denied the claim and the decedent’s representative appealed to the appropriate County Court of Common Pleas. The employer moved for summary judgment, arguing there was no causal connection between the workplace and decedent’s death. The trial court granted the employer’s motion and the administrator appealed.

While the administrator claimed that the cause of decedent’s heart attack was overexertion–the decedent’s attempt to walk to the employer’s premises from the remote lot–the appellate court observed that the medical expert could not reach this conclusion within a reasonable degree of medical certainty. The doctor repeated answered “no” when asked whether he could conclude, within a degree of reasonable medical probability, that the act of walking would trigger an acute myocardial infarction. The appellate court agreed that while decedent’s act of walking could have aggravated her heart condition and caused the fatal attack, the administrator’s theory that it had been brought about by overexertion was purely conjectural.

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