Sullwold v. Salvation Army – Worker’s Death at Home Compensable

As a growing number of companies rely heavily on technology to conduct their business, more and more are allowing workers to telecommute from home (or the local coffee shop or wherever else outside the office they can be productive).

The American Community Survey reports telecommuting has risen nearly 80 percent from 2005 to 2012, and now comprises more than 2.5 percent of the workforce in the U.S. – or about 3.2 million workers. Some estimate the number of telecommuters could balloon to 30 percent of the workforce at some point in the future.

While this often saves on overhead costs, there is one way in which it might complicate matters: Workers’ compensation.

Workers’ compensation is a type of insurance that covers injuries that arise out of and occur in the course of one’s work. But such cases are more complex when one’s office is at home, or when there is no central office space.

Such was the situation before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which recently considered  Sullwold v. Salvation Army, a case pertaining to workers’ compensation death benefits of a worker who died of an apparent heart attack while working at home.

It’s important to note that, typically, a heart attack – even when suffered on a job site – may be considered an idiopathic injury (i.e., owing to an internal condition of the worker, with the possibility of occurring anywhere) and thus not compensable. However in this case, the worker’s widow asserted stress was a major contributing cause of husband’s heart attack and death.

According to court records, he was responsible for overseeing investor relations for the non-profit, which at the time were valued at around $2.5 billion. He had lived in Maine since 2009, but was allowed to telecommute from home after he moved to New York City.

The company supplied him with a home computer, smart phone and other office materials.

On the day he died, he began work at 8:30 a.m. and continued working until 3:30 p.m. At that time, he took a break to walk on the treadmill. Roughly a half hour later, his wife found him unconscious on the floor. The phone was still next to him and his treadmill was still running. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

He had suffered a heart attack years earlier, and at that time, doctors recommended he make lifestyle changes, including better diet and exercise. He did so, and continued to receive treatment for coronary disease. He told his doctor weeks earlier he’d experienced chest pain while walking his dog. Though he had not reported work-related stress to his doctor, he had suffered a recent panic attack. He told his wife and co-workers it was due to being “overloaded,” and colleagues knew he worked long hours, traveled frequently and had much with which to contend.

His widow filed for workers’ compensation death benefits, asserting his heart attack and death were attributable to stress from work. A hearing officer granted her request, finding work stress a major factor in his death.

Company appealed this ruling, which was dismissed, and the grant of benefits was affirmed on the appellate level and again upon review by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

The court applied 39-A M.R.S. 327 in holding the death arose out of and in the course of employment. Employer countered attorneys for widow had not met an adequate burden of proof. The court held that where there is a rational possibility of success, claims should prevail.

The hearing officer had found that although worker was walking on treadmill at the time of his death, the injury occurred during work hours in a place the company sanctioned for work and while using a smartphone provided to him for work. Thus, it was held the injury arose out of and in the course of employment.

Injury suffered by telecommuting workers in Maine can prevail. An experienced Bangor workers’ compensation lawyer can help.

If you have suffered a work-related injury in Bangor, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Sullwold v. Salvation Army,Jan. 22, 2015, Maine Supreme Judical Court

More Blog Entries:

Bangor Workers’ Compensation Claims May Stem from Cold Weather Injuries, Jan. 7, 2014, Bangor Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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