“If you have a few minutes,” said Ralph, the plant manager, “I’d like to talk to you about Jeff’s death.”
“I have a few minutes,” replied Alice, the supervisor, “but I’ve been trying to forget about what happened to Jeff. Why do you want to rehash that?”
“Jeff’s family just filed a wrongful death lawsuit against us,” said Ralph. “They allege that our negligent actions led to Jeff’s premature demise.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Alice. “The fact of the matter is that we really don’t know exactly why Jeff died.”
“What happened on that fateful night?” asked Ralph.
“Jeff was working his normal overnight shift when he started to experience chest pain,” said Alice. “As you know, temperatures in our plant can reach as high as 120ºF. Jeff’s supervisor thought he was suffering from heat exhaustion, so he told Jeff to go to the break room and have a bowl of chicken noodle soup.”
“Did Jeff ask to go home when he first started to feel sick?” asked Ralph.
“He did,” said Alice, “but his boss couldn’t afford to let him leave. It would’ve thrown production out of whack. So Jeff went to the break room and had some soup. But he didn’t feel any better and he again asked to be allowed to go home, but his supervisor told him he’d be fired if he did so.”
“It sounds like it might have been a better idea to allow Jeff to leave,” said Ralph.
“Well, yeah, with the benefit of hindsight, that’s probably true,” said Alice. “But Jeff’s supervisor thought he might have been faking it.”
“Clearly, Jeff wasn’t faking it,” said Ralph.
“No, he wasn’t,” said Alice. “Shortly after Jeff returned to work, he collapsed. He was rushed to the hospital, but he was soon declared dead from cardiac failure.”
Ralph shook his head. “What a mess,” he said.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” said Alice, “but isn’t Jeff’s family eligible for workers’ comp?”
“The family says comp doesn’t apply in this case because it’s unclear whether Jeff’s death was caused by the extreme temperatures in the workplace or by his pre-existing heart condition.”
“Why does that matter?” asked Alice.
“If the heart condition caused Jeff’s demise,” said Ralph, “comp doesn’t apply and the family can pursue its lawsuit.”
“Jeff passed away on the job,” said Alice, “so it should be covered under workers’ comp. Let’s fight this lawsuit.”
Result: The company lost. The court refused to dismiss the case.
The judge said it was unclear whether the crew member died because of extreme temperatures or because he had a pre-existing heart condition.
Therefore, a jury should hear the evidence and determine the cause of the employee’s demise and whether the company was on the hook for his wrongful death.
The court also noted that the employer acted inhumanely when it refused to let a staffer with a pre-existing heart condition leave the workplace after he complained of chest pain.
Based on Heard v. WestRock Co.
(From the Feb. 13, 2023, issue of Safety Alert for Supervisors. To start your no-obligation trial subscription to the publication right now, please click here.)