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White v. Conagra Packaged Foods, LLC

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

December 19, 2017



          Paul C.Wilson, Judge

         Patricia White ("Claimant") appeals the decision of the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission ("Commission") denying workers' compensation for the death of her husband, Ulysses White ("White"). White suffered a fatal cardiovascular event while at work. Claimant contends the Commission erred by applying the wrong burden of proof to claims under sections 287.120 and 287.020[1] of the workers' compensation statutes. This Court has jurisdiction over this appeal under article V, section 10, of the Missouri Constitution. This Court affirms the decision of the Commission because Claimant failed to establish the accident was the prevailing factor in causing the injury, as required by section 287.020.3(4).


         Ulysses White worked for ConAgra Packaged Foods for 24 years in Marshall, Missouri. At the time of his death, White was working as a machinist in ConAgra's machine shop making parts for the production line. His job required him to operate machinery such as mills and lathes. For safety purposes, he was required to wear long sleeves, pants, steel-toed boots, and a hard hat. The machine shop did not have air conditioning, but, to cool the shop, fans were brought in and the doors and windows were regularly left open.

         The temperature was extremely hot the week of White's death, rising above 100 degrees on several occasions. Upon arriving at work on the morning of June 30, 2012, White spoke with his supervisor, who warned him to watch for signs of heat stress. White then began working in the machine shop. Around 9:00 a.m., White walked to the waste water system pump to ensure it was running properly after a scheduled power outage. After doing so, White returned to the machine shop where he worked until he took a 30-minute lunch break at 11:00 a.m. Around 11:45 a.m., a co-worker found White collapsed on the floor. Despite receiving medical attention, White died later that day. An autopsy revealed the cause of White's death was "a cardiac arrhythmia resulting from severe coronary artery disease."[2]

          At the time of his death, White possessed many of the traditional risk factors for severe coronary artery disease, e.g., hypertension, dyslipidemia, history of smoking, lack of regular exercise, poor performance on stress tests, and cardiac enlargement. Despite these risk factors, White still lived an active lifestyle and - in addition to his work - was able to perform maintenance around his house and yard.

         In January 2013, Claimant filed a claim for workers' compensation. At a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), Claimant and ConAgra presented conflicting expert witness testimony about the cause of White's death. Claimant presented expert testimony from Dr. Stephen Schuman, who opined the "work activities of 06/30/12 were the prevailing factor causing [White's] cardiac arrest and death." ConAgra responded with the expert testimony of Dr. Michael Farrar, who opined White "died of sudden cardiac death related to the prevailing causes of underlying severe coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease, caused by traditional risk factors." The ALJ denied compensation.

         Claimant appealed to the Commission. The Commission affirmed the decision of the ALJ with a supplemental opinion. In the supplemental opinion, the Commission first determined White suffered an accident because White's "death at work was an unexpected traumatic event." Second, the Commission addressed the issue of medical causation. In doing so, the Commission answered the question of whether "work was the prevailing factor in causing the alleged accident." After weighing the expert testimony, the Commission concluded Claimant had not met her burden of establishing medical causation. The Commission relied on Dr. Farrar's testimony in concluding White's work activities were not the prevailing factor in causing his cardiovascular event. The Commission was not persuaded by Dr. Schuman's testimony because the Commission found he "did not possess the necessary factual foundation to support his theory."[3]


         On appeal, this Court reviews decisions by the Commission to ensure they are "supported by competent and substantial evidence." Mo. Const. article V, sec. 18. The Commission's decision will only be disturbed if: (1) the Commission acted without or in excess of its powers; (2) the award was procured by fraud; (3) the facts found by the Commission do not support the award; or (4) there was not sufficient competent evidence in the record to warrant the making of the award. § 287.495.1, RSMo 2000. Decisions involving statutory interpretation, however, are reviewed de novo. Spradling v. SSM Health Care St. Louis, 313 S.W.3d 683, 686 (Mo. banc 2010).

          Under section 287.120.1, a claimant seeking workers' compensation benefits first must show that the "personal injury or death" of an employee was caused by[4] an "accident." An "accident" for purposes of section 287.120.1 is: (a) "an unexpected traumatic event or an unusual strain;" (b) "identifiable by time and place of occurrence;" (c) "producing … objective symptoms of an injury;" and (d) "caused by a specific event during a single work shift." § 287.020.2 (emphasis added). "Injury" means any "violence to the physical structure of the body." § 287.020.3(5). "'Death' when mentioned as a basis for the right to compensation means only death resulting from such violence and its resultant effects …." § 287.020.4.

         But when an employee is injured or killed due to a cardiovascular event at work, the foregoing general framework is augmented by a statute addressing such situations specifically. Section 287.020.3(4) provides that a death or other condition resulting from a cardiovascular event[5] "suffered by a worker is an injury only if the accident is the prevailing factor in causing the resulting medical condition." § 287.020.3(4) (emphasis added). Accordingly, such cases are not exempt from the ordinary accident/injury rubric set forth in section 287.120.1, and section 287.020.3(4) addresses how that rubric is to apply in these special circumstances.[6]

          In a simple slip-and-fall case, the accident and the employee's injury usually are distinct and easily identifiable. It can be harder, however, in cases involving cardiovascular events. This case provides a good illustration. The ALJ found that White's cardiovascular event and death were the "injury" but concluded Claimant failed to prove there was an "accident" as defined in section 287.020.1 and .2. The Commission, on the other hand, found there was an "accident" because White's "death at work was an ...

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