The Commission Found Causal Relationship Between Plant Worker’s Exposure To Smoke While Extinguishing Fire And His Death

The Appellate Court-1st District affirmed the Commission’s decision awarding death benefits to claimant, who alleged that her husband’s death was the result of extinguishing a fire four days earlier at defendant’s plant. Evidence indicated that the fume inhalation at work coupled with decedent’s past smoking and diabetes weakened his pulmonary resistance to infection. (Ford Motor Co v. Industrial Commission et al. (Warren Schussler), (Ill.App.Ct-1stDist.), No. 1-00-1950 WC, March 15, 2001.)

Claimant, decedent’s widow, filed a claim for death benefits arising out of an incident at work in which decedent was exposed to smoke while attempting to extinguish an over fire at defendant’s plant. Claimant testified that after the incident, decedent was not feeling well and was having difficult breathing. Decedent was admitted to the emergency room the next day with complaints of abdominal discomfort, chest pain and back pain. He was released later that day, but his condition deteriorated and he returned to the emergency room three days later. He died later that day. Decedent was 44 years old at the time of his death. The death certificate listed the cause of death as cardiac arrest due to cardiogenic shock.

Claimant’s expert did not agree with the cause of death as listed on the death certificate. He opined that decedent’s death was a “direct outgrowth” of his fighting the fire at work. The doctor testified that the fume inhalation at work coupled with decedent’s past smoking and diabetes weakened his pulmonary resistance to infection. He believed any cardiac manifestations were a consequence of decedent’s severe lung problems and lowered oxygen.

Defendant’s expert testified that decedent’s course in the hospital was typical for someone with a massive, fatal heart attack, especially given his history of smoking, obesity and elevated blood sugar. The expert opined decedent’s death was unrelated to any events that occurred at defendant’s plant.

Both the arbitrator and Commission relied upon the opinion of claimant’s expert in finding causal connection between decedent’s work extinguishing the fire and his sudden death four days later.

The Appellate Court-1st District affirmed, determining there was ample evidence from which the Commission could find that decedent died due to problems arising from fighting the fire at defendant’s plant. The court found it significant that prior to the firefighting episode, decedent generally was in good health, but shortly after fighting the fire, he was observed to gasping, short of breath and coughing up black phlegm. Also, the court noted that although decedent did not directly complain of breathing problems upon his first admission to hospital, the medical records revealed decedent was suffering from bronchial problems. The court further noted that both the arbitrator and Commission accepted the opinion of claimant’s expert given the chain of events between decedent’s fighting the fire and his death. The court could not say such a conclusion was unreasonable or against the manifest weight of the evidence. Claimant was not required to negate every other possible cause of death other than an injury arising out of the employment as long as there was competent evidence, as here, upon which to base a legitimate inference that death was from the work injury, the court explained.