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Court rules trucking can give you a heart attack

Aug. 7, 2015
Tennessee court rules driving truck contributed to heart attack, driver due worker's compensation.

On October 21, 2011 Curtis Marvel was securing a load of steel coils to his flatbed in Red Bud, Illinois when he began suffering chest pains. He tried to carry on with his delivery and hit the road. When the pains increased, the driver for Roane Transportation Services pulled into a truck stop and sought help, according to court documents. Paramedics took the driver to a hospital where doctors said he had suffered a heart attack. When he was discharged from the hospital, he learned that he had lost his job because his company said he was medically unable to be a truck driver.

Roane officials denied Marvel's claim for workers' compensation benefits saying that the heart attack was not job related. The driver disagreed. After appeals by his company of lower court rulings, Marvel's claim reached the Supreme Court of Tennessee Special Workers' Compensation Appeals Panel at Knoxville which filed its decision on July, 23, 2015. The court determined that Marvel's truck driving job was indeed a contributing cause of his heart attack and ordered that the company award him workers' compensation benefits.  

Marvel testified that while securing his load of steel coils – he was putting his weight into a cheater bar -- he thought he had pulled muscle in his chest. He took a break, rested in the cab and called the dispatcher.

The driver told the court: "I could not continue on, there was no way I was going to be able to tarp the load. I . . . just didn't have the energy, and I [didn't] know what was going on. So my dispatcher told me that he needed me to go ahead and get the last binder snapped, which is mandatory . . . in order to start moving, and that I could wait and tarp the load as long as I had it tarped prior to showing up to my destination in Atlanta, Georgia."

Marvel returned to securing the load, using his full body weight to secure the last chain in place. He left Red Bud at 11:21 a.m. and experienced increasing pain in his chest along with fatigue. Two hours later, he rested in Paducah, Kentucky for 30 minutes before continuing his run. As he continued driving, the pain increased, and his left arm “felt like somebody was trying to yank it off.”

Alarmed by the growing agony, he called his wife to let her know he was not feeling well and did not know what was happening. While speaking with her, the driver started sweating profusely. Believing that he was about to die, he told his wife, “I don't know if I'm going to make it.” He eventually spotted an off-ramp, exited the interstate, and parked at a nearby truck stop. He then entered a convenience store and told a clerk to call 911 before collapsing.

Marvel spent five days in the hospital where he received a stent in one of his arteries. On his way home, he stopped to get his paycheck and learned that he had been terminated.

During his hearing, Marvel testified that after his heart attack, he was too weak to drive and had little energy to engage in everyday activities. He said that he could walk a quarter of a block before needing to rest and acknowledged that he used electric carts provided by stores when shopping. His inactivity since the heart attack had led to significant weight gain, which subsequently caused him to develop diabetes.

When asked if he could hold down a job he said: “If somebody's willing to work me for five minutes at a time, maybe; but I doubt it. . . . I would say I wouldn't hire me.”

The court noted that compensation claims for heart attacks are divided into two groups: (1) those where the heart attack is precipitated by physical exertion or strain, and (2) those where the heart attack results from mental stress, tension, or some type of emotional upheaval.

One physician testified that Marvel's physical exertion—which involved moving, tightening, and locking chains to secure the load of steel coils—could have contributed to his heart attack, but was not the sole cause. The driver's high cholesterol and hypertension were risk factors that may have also played a role. However, the doctor's also testified that physical exertion could contribute to a plaque rupture that would initiate a heart attack, and physical or emotional “stress can make heart attacks more common.”

The court said this was consistent with that of another doctor who said that there was no way to determine the sole cause of the heart attack with any reasonable degree of medical certainty, but that an “acceleration of blood pressure with emotion, acceleration of blood pressure with exercise . . . certainly can speed up or accelerate [a plaque rupture].” A plaque rupture is when a cholesterol deposit in the wall of an artery ruptures through the lining of the artery and platelets form a clot in the artery – causing a heart attack.

Marvel's case also had a legal wrinkle. The Tennessee General Assembly enacted a law effective July 1, 2014 that provides compensation for workers' injury claims only when the "employment contributed more than fifty percent (50%) in causing the injury, considering all causes."

The carrier asked that this law be applied retroactively to Marvel's injury. But the court rejected that request. It's not known what would have been the court's ruling if the driver's heart attack had occurred under the new law.

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