Bacon v. Sevier County

Decision Date15 April 1991
Docket NumberNo. 39,39
Citation808 S.W.2d 46
PartiesMilton J. BACON, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. SEVIER COUNTY, Tennessee, Defendant-Appellant. 808 S.W.2d 46
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Jerry H. McCarter, Gatlinburg, for plaintiff-appellee.

John W. Baker, Jr. Knoxville, for defendant-appellant.


DROWOTA, Justice.

In this worker's compensation action, Plaintiff-Appellee, Milton Bacon, a bailiff/process server, seeks disability benefits on the theory that job-related stress caused him to have a heart attack. The employer, Sevier County, Defendant-Appellant, has appealed from a judgment of the Circuit Court for Sevier County awarding worker's compensation disability benefits to the employee, Bacon. The employer challenges the trial court's award on the basis that in awarding benefits, the court erroneously applied a causal presumption in favor of the employee contained in T.C.A. Sec. 7-51-201. 1 Because we find the statutory presumption inapplicable and that Plaintiff has failed to establish causation, we reverse and remand.

The record reveals that the Plaintiff, age 60 at the time of trial, began working as a bailiff/process server for the Chancery Court for Sevier County in 1976. His duties consisted primarily of maintaining a presence in the courtroom performing typical bailiff-type duties whenever the Chancery Court was in session, and serving papers when court was not in session. He was employed by the Clerk and Master and the Chancellor. When not in court, the Plaintiff would wear casual clothes and when in court, a suit and tie. He would carry a weapon at all times, although he never had an occasion to draw the weapon or actually fire at someone. He did not attend the police academy or have any formal training in connection with his job. The majority of his time was spent locating, driving to, and serving civil process. The Plaintiff described his job as being stressful and frustrating at times.

On September 26, 1986, Plaintiff left work at approximately 3 p.m. because he was feeling poorly. After arriving home, he complained to his wife about feeling as though an elephant was sitting on his chest. After dinner, he went to bed. At 4 a.m. the next morning, September 27, 1986, the Plaintiff awoke in pain. His bed was completely saturated with sweat. After having difficulty breathing at breakfast time, he was taken by his wife to a hospital in Sevier County where he came under the care and treatment of Dr. Black, a cardiologist. Earlier in the week, the Plaintiff had various difficulties serving process, claiming that he was "cussed out several times by attorneys." He also complained to the Clerk and Master earlier in the week of tightness in the chest, sweating profusely, and not feeling well generally. The Clerk and Master corroborated Plaintiff's testimony in this regard, stating that he told her on two occasions that he felt as though an elephant was sitting on his chest.

Dr. Black attended the Plaintiff in the emergency room at the Sevier County Hospital in the early morning hours of September 27, 1986. The Plaintiff gave Dr. Black no history of high blood pressure or heart disease. Dr. Black diagnosed Plaintiff's condition as a minor heart attack and discharged him on September 30, 1986, referring him to Dr. Yatteau, also a cardiologist, but with a specialization in cardiovascular disease serving as the Director of the East Tennessee Baptist Hospital Heart Center in Knoxville. Dr. Yatteau catheterized the Plaintiff's heart, which revealed that the Plaintiff had substantial coronary artery disease, atherosclerosis, necessitating by-pass surgery. Dr. Yatteau saw and examined the Plaintiff on approximately seventeen occasions. It should be noted that the Plaintiff returned to his duties as bailiff and process server in 1987 and has been so employed full-time ever since. He testified that since the heart attack, he walks two and one-half miles every day.

Dr. Black testified that the stress associated with the Plaintiff's job was a causal factor in producing the heart attack and assessed his anatomical disability at 31 percent. Testifying to the contrary, Dr. Yatteau was adamant in his belief that the Plaintiff's job had absolutely nothing to do with the heart attack. Dr. Yatteau testified: "I don't believe his work caused or aggravated the events on the 27th of September. * * * I think that the thing that precipitated his sudden deterioration was hemorrhage ... not precipitated by stress, but precipitated by the natural history of the disease. If he had retired, if he had been in Florida, if he had been in surgery, I think the same thing would have happened. I don't think that that particular event or events, if there were any in that particular time frame, caused it. I think it's just part of the natural history of the disease that with time, its going to weaken and collapse like it did." Counsel posed the following question to which Dr. Yatteau responded:

"Q. Now, this is a very important question. Dr. Yatteau, assuming that the information that I have provided to you is absolutely correct and true, do you have an opinion, based upon a reasonable degree of medical certainty, as to whether the stress this man claimed to have caused or contributed to his heart attack that he had in the morning at home on September 27th, 1986?

A. I believe that it had nothing to do with the heart attack. It didn't cause the heart attack."

The Plaintiff sought recovery for medical expenses and permanent partial disability benefits alleging that job-related stress caused the heart attack. The Defendant denied that the heart attack and heart disease and any resulting disability, was causally connected to his employment. The trial court concluded that the Plaintiff was a regular member of a law enforcement department and that he suffered a disability resulting from heart disease. The Court applied the statutory presumption found in T.C.A. Sec. 7-51-201 and held that the heart attack was causally connected to the stress associated with his employment resulting in 31% permanent partial disability to the body as a whole. This appeal resulted.


We are persuaded that the Plaintiff's case must necessarily rise or fall on the applicability of the presumption found by the trial court, contained in T.C.A. Sec. 7-51-201. In order for the presumption to apply, it must be established that the disabled employee was employed by a regular law enforcement department manned by full-time employees and the employee suffered a disability resulting from hypertension or heart disease. See City of Oak Ridge v. Campbell, 511 S.W.2d 686, 688 (Tenn.1974). The version of the statute which applied at the time that the Plaintiff had his heart attack in 1986 did not define "law enforcement officer." The current version of the statute defines "law enforcement officer" as including "correctional security job classification employees of the Departments of Correction and Youth Development, and full-time county law enforcement officers including county deputy sheriffs employed in correctional security positions." T.C.A. Sec. 7-51-201(a)(2).

We are persuaded that the Plaintiff was not a law enforcement officer employed by a regular law enforcement department manned by full-time employees. He was employed by the Clerk and Master and the Chancellor. He received his pay check from the Clerk's office and although he had authority to make arrests and carry a weapon, he was not an employee of the Sevier County Sheriff's Department. He did not wear a uniform, had no formal police training, and dealt with people in a "non-criminal" context. Accordingly, we conclude that it was error to give the Plaintiff the benefit of the presumption. See, Helton v. State, 800 S.W.2d 823 (Tenn.1990) (claimant was a city Chief of Police). Even if we were to assume that the statute applied, the presumption would have been rebutted given the fact that there are striking differences in the opinions of Dr. Black and Dr. Yatteau. See Helton, 800 S.W.2d at 825.


Having decided that it was error to have applied the statutory presumption to the facts presented in this case, we turn our attention to the ordinary standards of recovery applied in heart disease or heart attack cases. Analyzed causationally, the heart attack cases may be categorized into two primary groups: those that are precipitated by physical exertion or strain 2 and those resulting from stress, tension, or some type of emotional upheaval. 3 When the precipitating factor is physical in nature, the rule is well settled that if the physical activity or exertion or strain of the employee's work produces the heart attack, or aggravates a preexisting heart condition, the resulting death or disability is the result of an accident arising out of and in the course and scope of the employment. Shelby Mut. Ins. Co. v. Dudley, 574 S.W.2d 43, 44 (Tenn.1978); Kingsport Press, Inc. v. Van Huss, 547 S.W.2d 572, 573 (Tenn.1977); Lawrence County Highway Department v. Hardiman, 531 S.W.2d 792, 794 (Tenn.1975); Coleman v. Coker, 204 Tenn. 310, 321 S.W.2d 540, 541 (Tenn.1959). It makes no difference that the employee, prior to the attack, suffered from a preexisting heart disease, or that the attack was produced by only ordinary exertion or the usual physical strain of the employee's work. Flowers v. South Central Bell Telephone Co., 672 S.W.2d 769, 770 (Tenn.1984); Ward v. Commercial Insurance Co., 213 Tenn. 100, 372 S.W.2d 292, 296 (1963). In other words, no extraordinary exertion or unusual physical strain need be established in order to obtain a recovery. R.E. Butts Co. v. Powell, 225 Tenn. 119, 463 S.W.2d 707, 709 (Tenn.1971); Coleman, 204 Tenn. 310, 321 S.W.2d at 541; Nashville Pure Milk Co. v. Rychen, 204 Tenn. 575, 322 S.W.2d 432, 434-35 (Tenn.1958). The causational key to recovery or denial of benefits turns on whether the disabling heart attack is precipitated by the physical activity or exertion or...

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22 cases
  • Stone v. City of McMinnville
    • United States
    • Tennessee Supreme Court
    • March 20, 1995
    ...workers' compensation law now are applicable. Analysis of causation in heart attack cases was succinctly summarized in Bacon v. Sevier County, 808 S.W.2d 46 (Tenn.1991): Analyzed causationally, the heart attack cases may be categorized into two primary groups: those that are precipitated by......
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