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Rosinski v. General Motors Corporation

A-2544-01T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (Unpublished)

WORKERS COMPENSATION—The family of an employee with serious heart problems, who had a fatal heart attack triggered by a false fire alarm while at a hotel for an employer required training session, (thereby qualifying for the “special missions exception”), is entitled to collect workers compensation benefits.

A company’s union representative was scheduled by his employer to attend a training session outside of his employer’s facilities. Arrangements were made by a travel pursuant to a contract with the employer. The employer arranged for and paid for the room, car rental, and transportation to and from the training session. On the night of his last day at the conference hotel, the employee, and other guests were awakened by a fire alarm in the early morning hours. The employee, fully dressed, went to the parking lot “laughing like he always does ... and [] say[ing] this is a hell of way to get a wake up call.” While moving out of the way to allow a fire engine to pass, the employee fell backward and suffered a heart attack. The autopsy report cited the cause of death as “hypertensive and arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease with acute anxiety [precipitated by an escape from a hotel room prompted by a false fire alarm] being contributory.” The employee was 50 years old, weighed 365 pounds, and was six feet tall. His history showed that he had “an interior wall myocardial infarction of undetermined age, and he was diagnosed with (1) congestive heart failure; (2) cardiomegaly; (3) hypertension; (4) arteriosclerotic heart disease; (5) obesity; and (6) supraventricular tachycardia.” There was an opinion that the stress precipitated by the early morning fire alarm was enough “to tip him over the edge and cause the large myocardial infarction that precipitated his death.” The Appellate Division believed that the fire alarm “was a substantial stressful event, incident to work, which was out of the ordinary, in excess of decedent’s daily life and the cause of decedent’s death.” It focused on the “special mission exception” to determine whether the employee “was in the course of his employment” when he died. The “special mission exception” statute contemplates two conditions. The first is that “‘the employee must be required to be away from the employer’s premises,’ while the second requires the employee to be engaged in the direct performance of duties that are assigned or directed by the employer.” It is a true that an employee, while away on company business, “may engage in pursuits not meeting the condition of direct performance of duty and, therefore, not be covered.” Nonetheless, “the common thread” running through the Court’s interpretation of the “special mission exception” is that “the accidents occurred offsite at a location other than to which the employee was assigned.” Here, the employee “was away pursuant to the request of his employer, on the premises of the very hotel where he was specifically assigned, and prepared to travel home in the early morning hours, when the untoward heart episode occurred.” Just because he was awakened by a fire alarm, which sounded just before his scheduled wake-up call, did “not preclude him from being in the course of his employment.” The Appellate Division was satisfied that he was actually traveling to or from the “away” location, “thereby considered to be in direct performance of the duties assigned or directed by the employer.”

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