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The husband of an AT&T manager who died from a blood clot after sitting at her desk for more than 10 hours one night is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, an appellate court ruled today.
In 2007, Cathleen Renner, who worked for the communications giant for 25 years, died from a clot in her lung about an hour after she finished working a long, sedentary shift at her computer in her home office in Edison, the ruling states.
"There’s an awful lot of people that do nothing but sit in front of computers for work these days, and there’s a certain risk involved with that," said Patrick Caulfield, a lawyer for the family.
The appellate court upheld a lower judge’s decision that Renner’s fatal condition, known as a pulmonary embolism, was caused by her work and that her husband, James, is entitled to benefits under the state’s workers’ compensation law.
The case, which workers’ compensation experts said was the first of its kind they could recall, should give serious pause to any office worker tied to a desk for hours on end as well as to an employer, Caulfield said.
AT&T contended that Renner’s work was no more a threat to her health than her day-to-day lifestyle, the ruling states. The company also said many factors besides her work contributed to her death. A lawyer for AT&T did not return a message seeking comment.
Dr. Leon Waller, who testified on behalf of the 47-year-old Renner, acknowledged the mother of three had other risk factors like obesity and the use of birth control pills, the ruling states. But Waller found that Renner’s clot developed while she was working.
Dr. William Kritzberg, who testified on behalf of AT&T, conceded it would have been less likely for Renner to develop her fatal condition had she not been working that night, the court said.
Most pulmonary embolisms begin as a blood clot in the leg, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. The clot, which can form in a matter of hours, breaks free from the vein and travels through the bloodstream to the lungs, where it can block an artery.
Clots in the leg usually form when someone does not move around for a long period of time, according to the institute.
"Cathleen led a sedentary life in and out of work," the court wrote in its ruling. But the evidence showed her work inactivity was greater than her non-work inactivity, the court said. Her husband, James, testified that his wife, who weighed more than 300 pounds, never sat around and "was always up and out."
"It’s a unique case because it pushes the envelope and it traces the fine line between activities of daily life versus those confined or restricted by the workplace," said Gerald Rosenthal, co-chairman of the workers’ compensation committee for the American Bar Association.
For example, Rosenthal said, it would be reasonable to ask why Renner did not get up and walk around while on the job, especially since she was working at home and was by herself. According to the ruling, she was under pressure to meet a project deadline and had told her husband she would be working through the night.
Gerald Rotella, chairman of the workers’ compensation committee for the New Jersey State Bar Association, said the facts in the case are so specific that its effect on future workers’ compensation rulings is unclear.
"I could see another judge with those same factual circumstances deciding otherwise," Rotella said.
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