NBC’s “The Office” probably drives human resource professionals to insanity. Weekly, Michael Scott (played by Steve Carrell) and/or his assistant Dwight Schrute (played by Rainn Wilson) engage in poor decisions and ridiculous antics that violate most federal and/or state laws against employee discrimination and sexual harassment, not to mention a variety of criminal statutes.

A recent Office episode, “Stress Relief,” which aired after the Super Bowl, posed a compelling workers’ compensation question, and Roland Legal thought it would be fun to address.

The episode revolved around Safety Coordinator and Assistant to the Regional Manager Dwight Schrute being called on the carpet by the corporate brass of the paper company he works for, Dunder Mifflin, for starting a fire at the Scranton, Penn., office. To Dwight’s credit, sort of, he was attempting to test the office’s readiness in the case of a fire. Dwight did not think his officemates had paid close enough attention to his fire safety talk, so in an attempt to test the office’s preparedness, Dwight starts a small fire in a wastebasket — after he had locked off the exits and essentially trapped everyone inside the office. Naturally, chaos ensues and culminates with his colleague Stanley Hudson (Leslie David Baker) having a heart attack. Thus, surfaces our issue: Was Stanley’s heart attack work-related under Kentucky law?

Kentucky law has addressed variations of the issue as statutory provisions and interpretation has evolved. In and of itself, a heart attack has been looked up on as an idiopathic condition. In Jefferson County Public Schools/Jefferson County Board of Education v. Stephens, 208 S.W.3d 862, 864 (Ky. 2006), the Kentucky Supreme Court defined idiopathic “as caused by something personal to the claimant rather than the employment.” Professor Larson gives the following as examples of idiopathic conditions: “a disease, internal weakness, personal behavior, or personal mortal enemy that would have resulted in harm regardless of the employment.” Id. at 866 (citing Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law (2006)). Kentucky specifically addressed heart attacks as idiopathic conditions in Indian Leasing Co. v. Turbyfill, Ky. App., 577 S.W.2d 24 (1978).

So, was Stanley’s heart attack (and collapse – there could have been a related orthopedic injury) considered idiopathic under Kentucky law and thus not work-related? Much revolves around the definition of injury, which, after the 1996 amendments to the Act, was considered:

 … [A]ny work-related traumatic event or series of traumatic events, including cumulative trauma, arising out of and in the course of employment which is the proximate cause producing a harmful change in the human organism evidenced by objective medical findings. “Injury” does not include the effects of the natural aging process, and does not include any communicable disease unless the risk of contracting the disease is increased by the nature of the employment. “Injury” when used generally, unless the context indicates otherwise, shall include an occupational disease and damage to a prosthetic appliance, but shall not include a psychological, psychiatric, or stress-related change in the human organism, unless it is a direct result of a physical injury.

(Emphasis added). But did Sidney’s event involve a trauma resulting in a harmful change?  In McCowan v. Matsushita Appliance Co., Ky., 95 S.W.3d 30 (2002) the Court offered an elucidation of what constitutes a traumatic injury:

At its inception, workers’ compensation coverage was limited to traumatic, accidental workplace injuries, and the courts were strict in their construction of the term “traumatic” and contemplated physical trauma. See, Jellico Coal Co. v. Adkins, 197 Ky. 684, 247 S.W. 972 (1923). Over time, however, the term was less strictly construed and came to include injuries that resulted from events of an unusual, unexpected, or undesigned nature. See, Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. v. Sexton, 242 Ky. 266, 46 S.W.2d 87 (1932). It also came to include physical trauma in the form of shock, overexertion, or exposure to the elements. See, North American Refractories Co. v. Jackson, Ky., 346 S.W.2d 10 (1961); Adams v. Bryant, Ky., 274 S.W.2d 791 (1955). Eventually, heart attacks that were precipitated by physical exertion or strain came to be included. See, Hudson v. Owens, Ky., 439 S.W.2d 565 (1969); Grimes v. Goodlett and Adams, Ky., 345 S.W.2d 47 (1961); Terry v. Associated Stone, Ky., 334 S.W.2d 926 (1960).

A physical exertion or strain causing a heart attack would constitute an injury, but would mere stress precipitating Stanley’s heart attack constitute a trauma? In other words, would stress, a mental state, fall within the exclusion of KRS 342.0011 (1) excluding psychological, psychiatric or stress related changes?

The McCowan court determined that the goal of the 1996 amendment to the definition of injury “was to prevent compensation for so-called ‘mental-mental’ claims. The legislature attempted to do so in 1994, and we are persuaded that its goal in 1996 was to do so more effectively by preventing compensation for all mental changes that resulted from mental stress or trauma, including those that resulted from a physical change.” Id.

However, the Court went on to note there was no indication that the legislature “intended to preclude compensation for “mental-physical” claims as well, as would seem to apply to Stanley’s circumstance.

As such, the McCowan Court determined that even though a claimant might experience an emotional trauma rather than a physical one, a harmful change resulting from the emotional trauma (such as a heart attack in the case of McCowan and in the case of Stanley) the harmful change would constitute a compensable injury and the last sentence of KRS 342.0011(1) would not apply to such claims.

Based on the law and reasoning set forth above, we conclude Stanley’s heart attack was indeed work-related as the harmful change (the heart attack) flowed from the stress of the false alarm fire.  An argument could also be made that, mental stress aside, the exertion and strain of attempting to escape the fire would have been sufficient to justify a trauma under the Act and the law referenced above.

Dunder Mifflin might attempt to argue that the fire was not a foreseeable incident of or a hazard peculiar to Stanley’s employment as a paper salesman, but this rule of law as set forth in the case of Lexington Ry. System v. True, Ky., 124 S.W.2d 467 (1939), was overturned in Corken v. Corken Steel Products, Inc., Ky., 384 SW2d 949 (1964), where the Kentucky Supreme Court, relying on a variety of authorities, concluded “that causal connection is sufficient if the exposure results from the employment.” Id. (citations omitted). Under the facts of Corken, the claimant’s employment (as with Stanley) was the reason for his presence at what turned out to be a place of danger.” Add to this the circumstance that a Dunder Mifflin safety supervisor (Dwight), was conducting a safety drill (albeit a very unsafe safety drill), Stanley’s participation in the drill would provide an even more direct causal connection, again making the heart attack work-related.

Don’t agree? Give us your comments.

You can view highlights of the episode “Stress Relief” at: http://www.nbc.com/The_Office/video/clips/stress-relief/982442/

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