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Hart v. Federal Express Corp.

Supreme Court of Connecticut

April 19, 2016

WILLIAM D. HART
v.
FEDERAL EXPRESS CORPORATION ET AL

         Argued December 14, 2015.

Page 39

          Appeal from the decision of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Second District finding that the plaintiff had suffered a compensable work-related injury and awarding him temporary total disability benefits, brought to the Workers' Compensation Review Board, which affirmed the commissioner's decision, and the defendants appealed.

          Affirmed.

          SYLLABUS

         The defendants, F Co., a parcel delivery service, and its workers' compensation claims administrator, appealed from the decision of the Workers' Compensation Review Board affirming the decision of the Workers' Compensation Commissioner finding that the plaintiff had suffered a compensable work-related injury and awarding him temporary total disability benefits. The plaintiff had been employed with F Co. since 1987 as a courier to deliver packages along a specified route, with certain deliveries required to be made by certain times throughout the day, and had an unblemished employment record prior to 2009. In early 2009, the plaintiff's delivery area was enlarged, increasing the number of stops and the associated driving time. On September 15, 2009, due to a large inventory of parcels to deliver, the plaintiff was significantly behind schedule and was under great stress. The day was hot and the plaintiff's truck was not air-conditioned, and by late afternoon, after having had no time for a lunch break, to hydrate, or to use a restroom, the plaintiff began to feel ill. While at a fire station, one of his scheduled stops, fire personnel detected an abnormal heart rhythm, and they called an ambulance. He was brought to the emergency room of a local hospital where his heart rhythm devolved into a form of irregular accelerated heartbeat and tests showed he had low potassium levels due to dehydration. He was also diagnosed with hypertension. He was discharged from the hospital the next day with instructions to take certain medications and to follow up with a cardiologist, and was placed on medical leave. Between late 2009 and early 2012, the plaintiff was examined by various health care professionals including health care professionals retained by the defendants, and was diagnosed with various physical and psychological symptoms or conditions related to the September, 2009 incident. The plaintiff's medically excused absence from work expired in August, 2010. Six months after the September incident, F Co. had declined the plaintiff's request to return to work part-time, and subsequently informed the plaintiff that he would not have a position to return to when he was able to work. The plaintiff never sought alternative employment. Following a formal hearing, the commissioner concluded that the plaintiff had suffered physical and psychological injuries arising out of and in the course of his employment, and that the plaintiff was temporarily totally incapacitated from September 15, 2009 through August 7, 2010, and he awarded the plaintiff total incapacity benefits for that time period. The defendants appealed to the review board, which affirmed the commissioner's findings and award, and the defendants appealed. Held :

         1. The defendants could not prevail on their claim that the board improperly upheld the commissioner's findings that the plaintiff suffered compensable physical and psychological injuries arising out of his employment, there being sufficient evidence in the record to support the commissioner's findings; five medical experts, including the defendants' own cardiology expert, opined that the plaintiff's conditions of employment aggravated or could have aggravated his underlying heart problems and that, on September 15, 2009, those conditions caused him to suffer dehydration and resulting mineral deficiencies that precipitated his heart problems, psychiatric experts opined that the plaintiff's psychological injuries resulted from the life-threatening trauma he suffered as a result of the atrial fibrillation he experienced and the resulting need for emergency medical treatment, the commissioner credited that expert evidence, and this court was compelled to defer to the commissioner's findings.

         2. This court could not conclude that the board improperly upheld the commissioner's finding that the plaintiff was temporarily totally incapacitated through August 10, 2010, the commissioner having properly concluded that, even if the plaintiff had no physical restrictions related to his heart condition, it was reasonable for his treating physicians to hold him out of work throughout this period until they were able to complete their diagnoses and settle on a treatment regimen that would protect him from both the physical and psychological stresses of work; moreover, the commissioner found the opinion of the defendants' expert that the plaintiff was only partially incapacitated less credible than that of the plaintiff's treating physician, and nothing in this court's review of the record compelled it to disturb the commissioner's finding.

         David A. Kelly, with whom was Ryan D. Ellard, for the appellants (defendants).

         Robert B. Keville, with whom was Roger T. Scully, for the appellee (plaintiff).

         Rogers, C. J., and Palmer, Zarella, Eveleigh, McDonald, Espinosa and Robinson, Js. ESPINOSA, J. In this opinion the other justices concurred.

          OPINION

Page 40

          [321 Conn. 3] ESPINOSA, J.

          This case arises from an incident in which the plaintiff, William D. Hart (claimant), allegedly suffered heart problems and associated psychological injuries during the course of his employment as a courier for the named defendant, Federal Express Corporation (FedEx). The Workers' Compensation Commissioner for the Second District (commissioner) found that both the claimant's physical and psychological injuries were compensable under the Workers' Compensation Act (act), General Statutes § 31-275 et seq., and awarded him total incapacity benefits covering a period of approximately forty-seven weeks. FedEx and its claims administrator, the defendant Sedgwick CMS, Inc., appeal from the decision of the Workers' Compensation Review Board (board) upholding the

Page 41

commissioner's findings and award. On appeal, the defendants contend that neither the claimant's physical nor his psychological injuries are compensable under the act and, in the alternative, that the commissioner's award was excessive. We disagree and, accordingly, affirm the decision of the board.

          [321 Conn. 4] The following facts, as found by the commissioner, and procedural history are relevant to the disposition of this appeal. The claimant was employed by FedEx from 1987 through September 15, 2009, the claimed date of injury at issue in this case. The claimant worked as a courier, delivering packages to customers along a specified route. His daily job duties involved inspecting his vehicle and inventorying and loading parcels onto the vehicle. After doing so, he would confer with his manager about the number of stops to be made, and then drive from the FedEx terminal in the town of Norwich to his assigned delivery territory in the town of Stonington, including the Mystic and Pawcatuck areas.

         Once in his delivery area, the claimant would spend the first part of the morning, until 10:30 a.m., making priority overnight deliveries in Mystic. He would then begin making the next round of morning deliveries in and around the borough of Stonington (borough), to be completed by noon. He would then proceed into Pawcatuck and on into North Stonington. After completing all of his deliveries and pickups for the day, the claimant would return to Norwich, stopping at a gas station to top off his truck.

         The claimant, who was forty-seven years old on the claimed date of injury, was avid about physical fitness. He would rise each day at 4 a.m. and work out at the gym for as long as two hours before going to work. He engaged in intense gym workouts, including weightlifting and " 'cardio'" components, as many as six times per week, and he also went running approximately three times each week.

         The claimant's job requirements were demanding as well. His delivery area encompassed the tourist attractions of Mystic; Pawcatuck, which is the gateway to the beaches in Westerly, Rhode Island; and the heavily traveled Route 1 corridor between those towns. Daytime [321 Conn. 5] driving in this area, particularly during the summer tourist season, is challenging, and is complicated by having to cross the Route 1 drawbridge over the Mystic River. The claimant's workday averaged ten to twelve hours. Nevertheless, he was, by all accounts, a dedicated and hardworking employee who took great satisfaction in his job. He received a notable award for his service in 2004, and had an unblemished employment record prior to 2009.

         In early 2009, however, the claimant came under the direction of a new manager and the demands of his job began to escalate. His delivery area was enlarged, increasing the number of stops and the associated driving time. The claimant's typical " 'stop count'" climbed to 12.5 per hour, leaving less than five minutes on average for him to drive to and complete each delivery. The claimant asked his managers for help, but was told that nothing could be done.

         FedEx policy provides that each driver receive a one-half hour daily lunch break. FedEx also has strict standards for the timeliness of deliveries, however, and drivers are judged and graded on their ability to satisfy FedEx customers and complete assigned stops by the appointed deadlines. Owing to the increasing size of his delivery area and the traffic demands of the tourist season, during the summer of 2009, the claimant often was unable to find time even for bathroom breaks or his lunch break before 4:30 p.m. The claimant's managers were made aware that his route had

Page 42

become unworkable, but they took no steps to mitigate the situation and, according to the claimant, continued to increase the demands of his route.

         At the end of one shift in June, 2009, the claimant made his usual refueling stop in Norwichtown before returning to the nearby FedEx terminal. After refueling, however, he failed to secure the cap properly on the [321 Conn. 6] truck's fill pipe. When he arrived at the terminal yard, he smelled diesel fuel and realized that a small amount of fuel had spilled out of the fill pipe. The claimant reported the spillage to the office manager, who promptly called the fire department and the police. The incident ultimately involved the intervention of a hazardous materials team and federal occupational health officials. The claimant, who believed that FedEx had overreacted, was sent home. Upon returning to work for his next shift, the claimant was reprimanded for the fuel spill incident. On June 24, 2009, he received a written warning regarding that incident. At the same time, FedEx gave the claimant another written warning, stating that, when he took time off in May, 2009, he had exceeded his allotment of scheduled time off. The claimant testified that this overage was the result of how FedEx chose to account for five days he had been out of work when his mother died, classifying only three of the five days as bereavement leave.

         Having always worked hard to be a model employee, the claimant was greatly distressed by this turn of events. Between the written warnings and the steady increases in his workload--allegedly disproportionate to those of other drivers--the claimant began to think he was being set up by FedEx and, for the first time, worried about losing his job.

         On September 15, 2009, the claimant began his work day as usual. After taking inventory of the parcels, however, he concluded that his schedule would require fifteen delivery stops per hour, or one stop every four minutes on average. After loading his vehicle, he became convinced that this was too many stops and that it would be impossible for him to complete all the deliveries in the allotted time. When he reported his stop count to the manager on duty, the claimant asked if some of the stops could be assigned to another driver. This request was refused.

          [321 Conn. 7] The day was " hot" and the claimant's assigned truck had a transparent roof to help illuminate the shelves of parcels in the back. This type of roof tended to create a greenhouse effect, increasing the temperature inside the truck when the weather was warm. The vehicle was not air-conditioned.

         The claimant proceeded that morning to his assigned delivery area and began making his priority overnight deliveries. He was rushing, but did manage to make all of his deliveries in Mystic by the 10:30 a.m. deadline, with the exception of one stop where the customer was not present to sign for a package that required a signature. The claimant then drove to the borough, where he needed to complete his deliveries by noon. At approximately 11:40 a.m., the claimant arrived at a stop on Tipping Rock Road and concluded that the long driveway to the house was too narrow and overgrown to drive his truck down. With only twenty minutes left to complete his morning deliveries, he opted not to walk the parcel to the house. Instead, he attached the parcel in the mailbox post and then left a voice message on the customer's phone. He just managed to finish his remaining borough stops by noon. The claimant then proceeded in the direction of Pawcatuck, making his " 'SOS deliveries,'" all of which needed to be completed by 3 p.m. After that, he was scheduled

Page 43

to make his " 'E2'" deliveries, which needed to be completed by 4:30 p.m., at which time he was scheduled to make some pickups ...


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