Case Law Summary

August 21, 2012

The Pennsylvania State University v. WCAB (Rabin, Deceased), No. 224 C.D. 2011 (Pa. Cmwlth., filed August 15, 2012)


This case upholds the award of fatal claim benefits where (1) the decedent was not on the employer’s premises at the time of his injury and (2) where the decedent had a longstanding history of non work related medical problems


The decedent had worked as a professor and was known to meet routinely with a doctoral student, off-campus, to discuss the student’s dissertation material. On the date of the injury, the two were at a local eatery and decedent had requested that their lunch be put off until he instructed otherwise. They then engaged in a lengthy discussion of the dissertation. At some point, they walked towards the salad bar area, where the decedent fell and sustained injuries, including a fracture of his left upper extremity. He underwent surgery that very day and was later discharged. Due to pain and respiratory problems, he was admitted again and ultimately died several weeks.


The Commonwealth Court upheld the finding that the decedent was acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the injury. The Court noted that the record supported a finding that the decedent had been acting in furtherance of the employer’s business through the testimony of the doctoral student. Specifically, the student offered testimony that if the decedent not been injured, they would have continued to meet well into the afternoon and would have had a “working lunch” to continue their scholarly discussion. The Court also noted that the trip to the salad bar was nothing more than an inconsequential or innocent departure from the decedent’s work as a professor.


The Employer also argued on appeal that the medical evidence presented in support of the fatal claim was equivocal on the issue of causation. In this matter, the decedent had a long standing history of non-work related health ailments, including kidney, diabetes and cardiac problems. The employer argued that the medical expert’s testimony was equivocal because he merely stated that decedent’s work had contributed to his demise.


The Commonwealth Court reiterated that a medical expert does not have to use magic words, such as “substantial contributing factor,” but only must provide testimony that permits a valid inference that causation was present.


Here, the testimony of the decedent’s long standing treating physician explained how the fall and fracture caused unchecked pain and stress, resulting in renal and heart failure, suppression of the decedent’s immune system, and ultimately death due to aseptic pneumonia. The Commonwealth Court reviewed the medical testimony and found that it permitted a valid inference that the decedent’s fall and fracture materially contributed to his death, several weeks later.


The WCJ’s Decision was affirmed.

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