Pittsburgh Legal Back Talk

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Yes, Virginia, it is possible to work yourself to death in Pennsylvania.

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | August 20, 2015

No. 1,202


Image: dyer law.com

Image: dyer law.com

Robert Dietz was one of those unfortunate souls you see out in the cold weather repairing utility lines while you pass by in your warm comfortable car.  He was a jackhammer operator on a water line repair crew. On the day/night in question he went to work at about six AM and was still at work at about 9:30 PM, when he had a heart attack and died.

The issue was whether his widow was entitled to benefits. In order to be entitled to benefits, Mrs. Dietz had to prove a causal link between the work he was doing and his death.  There was medical testimony that there were multiple causes, smoking, pre-existing medical conditions, cold weather, stress, etc.  The company’s medical witness testified that it was only a matter of time before Dietz had a heart attack and that it could have happened while he was reading a book at home or asleep. Moreover, it was not known whether Mr. Dietz was actually jackhammering when the heart attack occurred, or perhaps taking a smoking break.

The case went up the Worker’s Compensation appeals ladder and then down on remand, and back up where in landed, after 8 years, in the Commonwealth Court.  The Court found that the death was work related and thus compensable, noting:

“Our Supreme Court has explained that ‘where a decedent was performing his or her usual job assignment at the time of the fatal heart attack, and the connection between the work and the heart attack was supported by competent medical testimony, decedent’s claimant was entitled to compensation.’ Bernard S. Pincus Co., 388 A.2d at 663 (emphasis added). Where exertion leads to a fatal heart attack, there is no need to pinpoint the exact work duty which caused the exertion. Plumbers Contractors, Inc. v. Workmen’s Compensation Appeal Board (Lewellyn), 402 A.2d 555, 557 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1979). In other words, ‘[i]t is not necessary to prove and identify the precise work details which caused a heart death that resulted from decedent’s exceptional work activity.’  Pennsylvania State Oral School v. Workmen’s Compensation Appeal Board (Gerek), 475 A.2d 175, 178 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1984).”
And there you have it.  You can indeed work yourself to death under Pennsylvania law.  But whether your widow will be entitled to death benefits depends upon the facts of the case.


CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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