Managing risk

Work injury led to stress-related death

A worker's compensation dispute ended in the tragic death of an employee. Read about the case here. 

29 September 2021

After a distraught woman had a heart attack and died on her way home after ‘stressful questioning’ by her employer’s barristers in an arbitration hearing, the Workers Compensation Commission found that her work injury had led to her death. 

The commission has ordered the employer to pay almost $490,000 in benefits to her dependent family members, along with more than $8,000 in funeral expenses.

In March 2012, when she was working as a casual cook at a hotel in Dubbo, she injured her lower back while lifting heavy drums of cooking oil. Her employer disputed her worker's compensation claim and the matter went on to be heard before the NSW Workers Compensation Commission in November 2012.

At the arbitration hearing, the woman was subjected to stringent cross-examination which was later characterised as ‘very stressful’ for her. Though the questioning was conducted in accordance with accepted guidelines, it touched on sensitive personal matters, alleging that her injuries had not been occasioned as she stated, but rather had resulted from domestic violence in the form of abuse by her de facto husband. 

She’d also had to listen to evidence given by a co-worker who was seeking to invalidate her claim and dispute her version of what had happened, with reference to surveillance footage of her. She found it distressing to have her credibility challenged in this way.

In addition, she hated flying but had needed to travel to and from the hearing by plane.

After the hearing, she’d caught a flight back to Dubbo, but suffered a fatal heart attack while on the plane. 

In the commission

The commission’s task was to determine whether the woman’s death had resulted from the compensable injury she suffered at work the previous March and whether her death could be said to have arisen as a result of her injury if it was caused by the events surrounding her attendance at the hearing of her claim in November. And if that was the case, the commission needed to apportion the death benefits between the woman’s partner and dependent children.

It was acknowledged that the woman had a number of cardiac risk factors and significant coronary artery disease that had probably been present for several years if not decades before her death, making her more susceptible to heart problems.

Nevertheless, evidence was put forward by a number of medical practitioners who supported the notion that the woman’s sudden death could have been brought about by the emotional stress of the hearing.

One cardiologist described several mechanisms by which emotional stress could trigger myocardial infarction and sudden death. Amongst other things, he mentioned a rise of arterial pressure, and vasoconstriction leading to plaque disruption.

Another cardiologist noted the likelihood of a small tear in the coronary artery forming a clot which, on top of the already significant blockage and narrowing of the artery, caused the fatal heart attack. 

After considering all the evidence, the arbitrator took the view that the woman’s death resulted from the stress of the arbitration hearing on 7 November 2012. In his opinion, a causal link had been established between her injury and her subsequent death because if she had not been injured in the course of her employment, she would not have been subjected to the cross-examination and the stress of the hearing, and would not have suffered her fatal heart attack as a result.

The commission ordered that the benefit sum of $489,750 – to be paid by the employer – was to be divided equally between the woman’s partner and her two dependent children. The employer was also ordered to pay the funeral expenses of $8,834.45.

The bottom line: while the risk of someone dying from the stress of being cross-examined is not normally foreseeable, employers should take great care before deciding to dispute a worker’s claim for compensation.

Read the judgment: Gaydon v The Castlereagh Hotel [2020] NSWWCC 146 (6 May 2020)

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