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LegalSpeak: Cunningham v. Shelton Security Service (Tenn. 2001)

Workers’ Compensation Law Read more from
Chapter Employment Law

The rule is different, however, when the heart attack is caused by a mental or emotional stimulus rather than physical exertion or strain. In such cases, “it is obvious that in order to recover when there is no physical exertion, but there is emotional stress, worry, shock, or tension, the heart attack must be immediately precipitated by a specific acute or sudden stressful event rather than generalized employment conditions.” Thus, if the heart attack is caused by a mental or emotional stimulus rather than physical exertion or strain, there must be a “climactic event or series of incidents of an unusual or abnormal nature” if a recovery is to be permitted. Id. Although “excessive and unexpected mental anxiety, stress, tension or worry attributable to the employment can cause injury sufficient to justify an award of benefits,” the ordinary stress of one’s occupation does not because “emotional stress, to some degree, accompanies the performance of any contract of employment.” In other words, “normal ups and downs are part of any employment relationship, and as we have said on many previous occasions, do not justify finding an ‘accidental injury’ for purposes of worker[s’] compensation law.” Accordingly, the rule is settled in this jurisdiction that physical or mental injuries caused by worry, anxiety, or emotional stress of a general nature or ordinary stress associated with the worker’s occupation are not compensable. The injury must have resulted from an incident of abnormal and unusual stressful proportions, rather than the day-to-day mental stresses and tensions which workers in that field are occasionally subjected.

With these principles in mind, we review the record in the present case to determine whether the employee’s death arose out of his employment. We note first that there was no physical exertion or strain involved in precipitating his heart failure. Instead, the mental stress or tension associated with confronting the suspected shoplifters caused the heart failure, at least according to some of the medical proof. Applying the law as just described, the trial court concluded the employee’s death was not compensable because he was not confronted with circumstances of an unusual or abnormal nature given his work as a security guard. As the record reflects, verbal confrontations occurred at least once a week at the store, and it was common for the employee to “go out and yell at these people.” However, the record also reflects that the individuals chased off by the employee threatened to return and kill him. We believe that this additional circumstance makes a difference and is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that the employee’s death did not result from generalized employment conditions, but from something beyond the norm, even for a security guard. Accordingly, we find that the evidence preponderates against the trial court’s finding that the employee’s death did not arise out of his employment.

The reason, simply put, is that the employee has met the burden of establishing that his heart failure was caused by a mental or emotional stimulus of an unusual or abnormal nature, beyond what is typically encountered by one in the employee’s position. We thus reiterate the rule again in this case that if the cause or stimulus of the heart attack is mental or emotional in nature, such as stress, fright, tension, shock, anxiety, or worry, there must be a specific, climatic event or series of incidents of an unusual or abnormal nature if the claimant is to be permitted a recovery, but no recovery is permitted for the ordinary mental stresses and tensions of one’s occupation because “emotional stress, to some degree, accompanies the performance of any contract of employment.” If the rule were otherwise, workers’ compensation coverage would become as broad as general health and accident insurance, which it is not.

We conclude that the evidence preponderates against the trial court’s finding that the employee’s death did not arise out of his employment. Accordingly, we agree with the Panel that the trial court erred in dismissing the case and that the case must be remanded for further proceedings.

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