Was it too much work or too much Facebook that killed Cathleen Renner?

Cathleen Renner died of a pulmonary embolism on September 25, 2007.  Renner’s dependents filed a workers’ compensation claim alleging that she literally “worked herself to death” by sitting in a chair at home and working on an assigned project from “the evening” of September 24, 2007 until sometime in the morning of September 25, 2007.  According to the claimant’s paid expert, Renner died of blood clots which formed by “sitting for an extended period of time.”  The case was actually reviewed by the Appellate Division twice: the first decision of the workers’ compensation judge – finding that the decedent had sustained a comepnsable injury and awarding benefits to the survivors based on a  “occupational injuries” theory of causation – was reversed by the appeals panel because the judge applied the wrong standard.  The Appellate court ruled that the claimants had to meet a higher burden of proof imposed by New Jersey’s Section 7.2, which applies in heart attack and cardiovascular cases (N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2).
 
On remand, the law judge decided the case again –  this time finding that the claimant’s inactivity was a material cause of her pulmonary embolism and ascribing that injury and ultimately the death to the employment.
 
As the decedent was 47 years old and likely subject to the maximum rate in effect for statutory year 2007.  Her husband will be paid $1,317,049 should he live to his life expectancy. 
 
Under the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act there is a higher burden for a claimant to meet in cases involving cardiovascular injury (such as pulmonary embolism).  A claimant must show that that “the injury or death 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.”  See N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.2.  In plain English, the claimant has the burden to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the work effort which caused the condition was somehow more strenuous than the activities of daily living.  This is because the drafters of the statute envisioned that the “cardiovascular” events brought before the Division of Worker’s Compensation would be heart attacks and strokes – which can be brought on by stress and strain.
 
For some unponderable reason, the defense counsel in the Renner case conceded that the issue in that case was “whether Cathleen’s lack of movement at work was more severe than her lack of movement in her daily living” –essentially, applying the “reverse” of the excess wear and tear factor required by the Act.  Why on earth did defense counsel agree to this? Under the Act, the burden was on the claimant to show that the work activity produced the condition.  Why did defense agree to a weaker position – having to prove that the claimant’s activities of daily living were more strenuous than her work activities?  Considering the fact that the subject of that inquiry – Cathleen Renner – was dead – how exactly was defense counsel intending on proving her activities of daily living?  Through the testimony of her dependents?  
 
Well, Renner’s  dependents certainly testified in the case, but given their own financial interest in the outcome, could not reasonably be expected to help the defense by volunteering information about Renner’s personal life.  In fact, Renner’s husband testified that in her personal life, his wife was “never sitting on the  couch with me.  She was always up and out, you know, running with the kids and taking them wherever they needed to be. . .  always running.  Always running.” 
 
The case is also amazing because there is a lack of verifiable (objective) proofs that the decedent was actually working for any of the time period she was allegedly immobile.
 
According to the facts as accepted by the workers’ compensation court, she “began working at home on the evening of September 24, 2007.”  No specific time is noted anywhere.  There is no statement as to what she was actually doing – Facebook?  Twitter? Farmville?  Work?   Instead, there is a reference to an email sent to a coworker at 12:26AM.  No discussion is provided as to what that email was about.
 
The next piece of information comes from the decedent’s son, who stated he woke at 7AM on September 25th, 2007 and saw his mother at her desk in her home office.  Her husband was not home to observe any of the alleged “work.”  The son did not testify that she worked through the night – only that she was at her desk in the morning.  There appears to have been no evidence of what actual work she was doing – no computer log files, documents, or network login information.  Even the decedent’s supervisor testified that she had plenty of work to do but did not confirm she was working overnight.  
 
The decedent next verifiable activity was to email a coworker at 9AM to state she was not feeling well.   Her final act was to email a document to someone at AT&T at 10:30AM.  Shortly after, she called for an ambulance and was taken to the hospital.  She succumbed to pulmonary embolism.
 
According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute(NHLBI) risk factors for pulmonary embolism include: prolonged immobility, obesity, and medications that affect blood clotting times, especially birth control pills.
 
Cathleen Renner was classified as “morbidly obese” at 300 pounds and on birth control medications at the time of death.  Both of these conditions are considered leading risk factors for developing a pulmonary embolism.
 
The Appellate Division affirmed  the opinion of the Judge of Compensation that Renner’s death was related to “prolonged inactivity” due to work and therefore compensable.  
 
The lack of evidence regarding work described in the opinion is disheartening.  The defense should have challenged the lack of a verifiable timeline and lack of documented proofs to show Renner was even working the alleged “overnight” marathon work session claimed.    
 
The fact that no one seems to have asked the simple question: what was it about the work that prevented the decedent from getting up every hour or so, and walking around for thirty seconds?  She certainly didn’t have a supervisor hovering over her shoulder, forcing her to sit perfectly still for hours on end.
 
This case is emblematic of the lengths courts will go to find questionable claims compensable. 
 
The defense in this case agreed to a “made up” legal standard to the case that shifted the burden of proof from the claimant to the employer.  This hurt the employer.  The Workers’ Compensation Act requires that in vascular cases the claimant must show a heightened exertion – something beyond the activity of daily living.  For some reason the employer agreed that if the claimant could show less exertion than daily living, the claimant should prevail.  That is ridiculous.
 
Next, the defense should have presented facts showing exactly what the decedent was doing for the unknown time period.  Server logs, network logins, and the decedent’s own computer should have been submitted into evidence.  The record as discussed in the Appellate decision is scant.  
 
Finally, the fact that the claimant was morbidly obese and on medication that affected the clotting characteristics of her blood – known risk factors for embolisms –  should have been used more effectively.  Instead, causation in this case turned on whether Cathleen’s “lack of movement at work was more severe than her lack of movement in her daily living” which is an absurd standard not found in the Workers’ Compensation Act.
 
The case is not appealable as of right to the New Jersey Supreme Court as there was no dissenting opinion.  The employer may seek to appeal, and if they do we will update you as to the outcome.

Case: James P. Renner v AT&T,  A-2393-10T (App. Div. Decided June 27, 2011).  Link to full decision.

Greg Lois is the managing partner of LOIS LLC, a 19-attorney law firm dedicated to defending employers and carriers in New York and New Jersey workers' compensation claims. Greg is the author of a popular series of "Handbooks" on workers' compensation, and is the co-author of the 2016 Lexis-Nexis New Jersey Workers' Compensation Practice Guide. Greg can be reached at 201-880-7213 or glois@lois-llc.com