From the Circuit Court of Montgomery County; Civil Appeal; Judge Edward D. Hodge.
Motion for Rehearing Overruled August 16, 1983.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gunn
The issue in this case is whether an employee's death by work induced heart attack during the continued performance of his usual duties constitutes ground for worker's compensation death benefits. We find that it does.
Jack Wynn was an over-the-road truck driver for Navajo Freight Lines, Inc. While making his usual run between Kansas City, Missouri and Indianapolis, Indiana, he suffered a massive heart attack near Danville, Missouri. Truck driver friends came to his aid, but he succumbed on the way to the Mexico, Missouri hospital.
Claim for worker's compensation death benefits was sought by Mr. Wynn's widow and unemancipated children. The administrative law Judge denied the claim finding that there was no accident or unusual strain within the meaning of § 287.020.2, RSMo 1978. On review, the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission (Commission) reversed the administrative law Judge and awarded death benefits, finding that Wynn's death by coronary occlusion resulting in a myocardial infarction was caused by an "over-exertion unusual to the deceased, which aggravated employee's pre-existing heart disease to the extent that it did cause an accident within the meaning of the statute."
Subsequent appeal was taken to the circuit court which disagreed with the Commission and concluded its award was not supported by substantial evidence and was contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence.
Appeal was thereupon given hearing in the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, which in opinion by Judge Snyder, gave thorough and accurate analysis of the existing worker's compensation law. The Eastern District concluded that the record did not support a finding that Mr. Wynn's death was due to any abnormal or unusual strain in connection with his employment, the appropriate standard for recovery under case law existing at the time. E.g., Crow v. Missouri Implement Tractor Co., 307 S.W.2d 401 (Mo. banc 1957); Russell v. Southwest Grease and Oil Co., 509 S.W.2d 776 (Mo. App. 1974). Applying the then appropriate legal rubric to the facts, the Eastern District thereby affirmed the circuit court judgment denying recovery.
The claimants - the Wynn family - had sought to bring their claim under the facts and circumstances of Smith v. Plaster, 518 S.W.2d 692 (Mo. App. 1975), by showing that Mr. Wynn's heart attack had been brought about by the unusual strain of pulling an empty trailer under a series of abnormal circumstances. *fn1 Smith v. Plaster allowed worker's compensation benefits to an employee who sustained an acute myocardial infarction caused by an abnormal strain in the performance of his working duties. But see State ex rel. Hussman-Ligonier Co. v. Hughes, 348 Mo. 319, 153 S.W.2d 40 (1941), in which a heart attack to a worker occurring on the job was held not to have been caused by an abnormal strain and therefore non-compensable.
The ultimate holding of the Eastern District in affirming the judgment of the trial court was that there was an "absence of evidence of abnormal or unusual strain arising out of [Mr. Wynn's] employment;" thus, his death was not "accidental" and compensable.
In the meantime, this Court has issued Wolfgeher v. Wagner Cartage Service, Inc., 646 S.W.2d 781 (Mo. banc 1983), which bears directly on this case. Accordingly, transfer of the Wynns' case was granted.
Wolfgeher provides an exhaustive lesson in worker's compensation law, particularly as it relates to Missouri courts' interpretation of legislative enactments. The case conducts a review of the various stages of court treatment of the purpose of the law: from initial liberal construction which required no evidence of unusual strain, e.g., Carr v. Murch Bros. Const. Co., 223 Mo. App.788, 21 S.W.2d 897 (1929), to the more fusty treatment of State ex rel. HussmanLigonier Co. v. Hughes, supra, and the moderate approach of Crow v. Missouri Implement Tractor Co., supra.
Wolfgeher notes that "the statutory definition of the term 'accident' has remained unchanged over the years but the judicial construction thereof has not." In so doing, it concludes that Missouri should abandon any narrow construction of the term "accident" and give it the broadest possible meaning to extend worker's compensation to the largest possible class of employees. Id. at 785. Wolfgeher further comments that the requirement of establishing an abnormal or unusual strain before allowing compensation is totally out of phase with the overwhelming majority of other jurisdictions: "Where the performance of the usual and customary duties of an employee leads to physical breakdown or a change in pathology, the injury is compensable." Id. at 784.
Underpinning Wolfgeher and providing the base for its Conclusion erasing the abnormal or unusual strain requirement is the Court's attitude toward occupational diseases, which ...