Long Hours Leave Employer Liable -- for Working Employee to Death

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 25, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Long hours are coming under fire. First, there's the Department of Labor's plan to expand overtime pay to millions of white-collar workers. Then there's that New York Times Amazon piece. You know the one -- the one that emphasizes the online retailer's grueling hours and demanding culture. The one that makes Amazon look like a corporate Guantanamo, but with less downtime.

Excessive work demands took an extra blow the other day when a Pennsylvania court ruled that the widow of a worker who died during a 14 hour shift was entitled to death benefits. The employer was liable for working the man to death, the court ruled.

A Long Day Followed by a Heart Attack

Robert Dietz, the 48 year old who died on the job, was not the type of highly paid young professional that gets ground to a pulp at Amazon. Rather, his experience was much closer to that of the laborers working in equally trying positions in Amazon's warehouses. Dietz did field maintenance for the municipal water department in the Philadelphia suburb of Levittown. During a 14 hour shift, Dietz suffered a heart attack, collapsed, and died. His wife, Judith, and his minor child sued for death benefits.

Pennsylvania's Workers' Compensation Act allows for death benefits, also known as fatal claims, for the families of workers who have died on the job. The benefits cover up to 60% of the employee's wages plus $3,000 for burial costs. The state workers' comp board had originally rejected Dietz's claim, finding that there was no causal connection between Dietz's death and his work. A panel of Commonwealth Court judges, hearing Dietz's appeal, disagreed.

Finding Causality in Regular Work

The court offered a broader reading of the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act. They noted that Dietz "frequently worked more than 40 hours per week and was always on call." Those demanding hours, coupled with the physically demanding work, had been maintained for over 13 years.

Unlike the board, the court was not convinced that Dietz's pack-a-day cigarette addiction and stress meant that his heart attack could have happened at any time -- and that only mere coincidence led him to die during work. As the court ruled, there was overwhelming of evidence that Dietz's "regular work activities over the course of a 14-hour day caused his heart attack."

There is currently no word on whether Dietz's employer will appeal the ruling, Reuters reports.

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