Most fatal work injuries result from sudden accidents: vehicle collisions, falls, equipment malfunctions and the like. However, as one case illustrates, job-related deaths can happen out of the blue from something as simple as overwork.

Two decades of backbreaking labor

The wife of a Pennsylvania worker found herself without a husband – and her child without a father – when he died suddenly on the job in 2007. A maintenance worker, the man had spent more than 20 years performing intensive manual labor for Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority. His duties often included heavy lifting, jackhammering and digging. What’s more, he routinely worked long hours in difficult weather conditions.

During one particularly exhausting day, after 14 hours of work on a water main in bone-chilling conditions, he collapsed and died of a sudden heart attack.

The years-long legal battle that followed

The workers’ comp insurer fought to keep the man’s widow from receiving death benefits, claiming that the heart attack wasn’t job-related. The worker had classic risk factors for a heart attack: He was overweight and a heavy smoker, and he had high cholesterol plus a family history of heart disease. After a lengthy legal battle, a Commonwealth Court panel finally sided with the widow last summer.

A key witness in the case was a medical expert – a board-certified physician in emergency medicine and thoracic/cardiac surgery. The doctor testified that the worker wouldn’t have died were it not for his long hours and strenuous working conditions. This testimony was critical in winning a favorable outcome for the widow and her child.

The takeaway for those seeking benefits

This case illustrates how workers’ compensation claims sometimes involve gray areas. It also highlights the importance of strong medical evidence. The testimony of a trustworthy expert witness can make or break your case.