Cardiovascular Claims Under the Workers’ Compensation Law

Renner v. AT&T, 218 N.J. 435 (2014).  This opinion by a unanimous Supreme Court today, written by Judge Rodriguez, addresses the effect of a 1979 amendment to the Workers’ Compensation Law, N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2.  “In that amendment, the Legislature set higher standards of proof and causation for cardiovascular claims.”

Plaintiff Renner sought dependency benefits arising from the death of his wife from a pulmonary thromboembolism.  She had been employed by AT&T and worked primarily from a home office.  The claimant’s expert testified that the thromboembolism was caused by job “stress and prolonged sitting.”  A judge of compensation ruled that the decedent had suffered a vascular disease injury, not an occupational disease injury, and therefore awarded benefits.  The Appellate Division affirmed.  AT&T petitioned for certification, and the Supreme Court reversed.

Judge Rodriguez traced the history that led to the 1979 amendment regarding cardiovascular claims.  That amendment was largely a response to Dwyer v. Ford Motor Co., 36 N.J. 487 (1962), which had employed a more “permissive” standard for such claims.  The amendment, part of a package of amendments, some of which expanded and others of which restricted compensation, required the claimant to show that the cardiovascular injury “was produced by the work effort or strain involving a substantial condition, event or happening in excess of the wear and tear of the claimant’s daily living and in reasonable medical probability caused in a material degree the cardiovascular or cerebral vascular injury or death resulting therefrom.”

In Hellwig v. J.F. Rast & Co., 100 N.J. 37 (1988), the Court overruled Dwyer, and stated that the amendment was “intended to focus attention on the intensity and duration of the precipitating work effort or strain in evaluation its capacity to cause cardiac dysfunction.”  Moreover, the work effort or strain must exceed “the wear and tear of the claimant’s daily living” outside of his or her work responsibilities.

Applying that more restrictive test here, Judge Rodriguez concluded that Renner was not entitled to benefits.  Because this was an issue of law, no deference was owed or given to the ruling of the judge of compensation.  Though the decedent worked from a desk at home, she was not required “to remain in a seated position for long, uninterrupted stretches of time …. confined to a specific space or instructed not to move from her workstation.”  She could stand, stretch, move around, or even recline.  Thus, prolonged sitting was not “a condition compelled by her job,” and plaintiff did not qualify for benefits.

The Court evidently granted review of this case in response to AT&T’s assertion, as characterized by Judge Rodriguez, that the Appellate Division’s decision, if left standing, would “likely result in a significant increase in cardiovascular injury and death claims, which would counter the State’s efforts to reduce insurance costs.”  The result of the Court’s ruling is to limit such cardiovascular injury and death claims, apparently the Legislature’s 1979 amendment intended.