Telecommuter Risks

No Comp for Telecommuter’s Death From Embolism

After a telecommuter died of an embolism, her husband claimed it was because her work required her to sit for long hours. The court disagreed.
By: | September 4, 2014

The husband of a New Jersey AT&T worker who died after spending more than 10 hours sitting at her home office will not receive workers’ comp death benefits. The New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the controversial decision.

An appellate court had upheld a ruling that Cathleen Renner’s death was caused by prolonged sitting due to her work, but the higher court said the woman’s husband had not proven that.

“Where a workers’ compensation claimant fails to demonstrate that cardiovascular injury, disease or death resulted from a work effort or strain involving a substantial condition or event, he or she is not entitled to compensation” under New Jersey statutes, the court said. “Prolonged sitting, uninterrupted by breaks to stand, walk, or exercise, was not a condition compelled by Cathleen’s job.”

Renner had a telecommuting agreement with AT&T that allowed her to work out of her home several days a week. On the day of her death in 2007, she had spent more than 10 hours sitting at her desk to finish a work project.

Her husband, James Renner, successfully filed a dependency claim in the Division of Workers’ Compensation and alleged that her death was compensable as an occupational disease as defined by state statutes. But the Appellate Division concluded that the judge had applied the incorrect standard to the facts presented and remanded for the DWC to determine whether dependency benefits could be awarded pursuant to the cardiovascular injury, disease, or death standard.

The DWC ruled in Renner’s favor after hearing a physician testify that within a reasonable degree of medical probability, the sedentary nature of Renner’s work was the precipitant in the pulmonary embolism that resulted in her death.

“Prolonged sitting, uninterrupted by breaks to stand, walk, or exercise, was not a condition compelled by [the deceased worker’s] job.”

That decision came despite testimony by a physician for AT&T who said Renner had several risk factors — morbid obesity, birth control pill use, age, and an enlarged heart — which he said contributed significantly to the embolism’s formation. He also said it was impossible to state within a reasonable degree of medical probability that her death was related to her work effort. AT&T appealed to the Supreme Court.

“In discharging her work duties, Cathleen read, took telephone calls, sent and received e-mails, had conferences with her superiors and co-workers, and made decisions. These responsibilities did not require her to remain in a seated position for long, uninterrupted stretches of time,” the high court said. “We reverse and hold that James has failed to demonstrate that Cathleen’s death resulted from a ‘work effort or strain’ within the meaning of [state statutes] and has failed to present a compensable cardiovascular claim pursuant to the Workers’ Compensation law.”

Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected].

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