Helms v. Lynn's, Inc.

Decision Date18 October 1995
Docket NumberNo. 19162,19162
Citation1996 SD 8,542 N.W.2d 764
PartiesMargaret HELMS, as Widow and Personal Representative of Bruce L. Helms, Deceased, Claimant and Appellee, v. LYNN'S, INC., Employer and Appellant, and The Travelers Companies, Insurer and Appellant. . Considered on Briefs
CourtSouth Dakota Supreme Court

James G. Abourezk, Abourezk Law Office, Rapid City, for claimant and appellee.

Dennis H. Hill, of Costello, Porter, Hill, Heisterkamp & Bushnell, for appellants.


¶1 Employer Lynn's, Inc. and its insurer appeal from the circuit court's reversal of the Department of Labor's determination that Employee Helms' heart attack was not caused by his employment. We reverse the circuit court and reinstate the Department of Labor's denial of worker's compensation benefits to Helms' widow, the claimant in this action.


¶2 Bruce Helms was a former employee and manager of Lynn's Super Valu in Faith and Eagle Butte, South Dakota, having worked for Lynn's, Inc. for twenty-five years. He was 70 years old at the date of his death, and was retired and drawing Social Security. To supplement his income, he worked at Lynn's in Faith part-time unloading groceries from the delivery truck.

¶3 On January 23, 1992, Helms arrived at Lynn's at 3:46 a.m. and spent one and one-half to two hours unloading the delivery truck. The truck driver testified he delivered 350 crates of food that morning, totalling 7,000 pounds. Tracy Veit, a high school student, assisted Helms that day. Veit carted the boxes of food out to the store shelves for display and, in fact, unloaded about one-third of the boxes from the truck. Both Veit and the delivery truck driver testified that Helms was his usual, cheerful self that morning and did not complain or appear to be sick. Veit testified Helms, who was a lifelong smoker, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee during a break.

¶4 Helms left Lynn's at 6:40 a.m. but did not arrive home until later in the morning, sometime between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. Once home, Helms appeared pale and complained of nausea to his wife but when asked if he hurt anywhere, said no. Helms told his daughter the same thing when she asked. Helms laid down for awhile but when his condition did not improve, his wife drove him to a clinic 96 miles away in Hettinger, North Dakota.

¶5 At the clinic, Helms was seen by Dr. Terrence Mack, a family practitioner. Helms had phoned Dr. Mack in the morning prior to leaving Faith and informed the doctor his heart was beating 120 beats per minute and that he had been having trouble with chest discomfort. When Helms saw Dr. Mack at the clinic, he was not having any chest pain but informed the doctor he had had chest pain on days previous to January 23 brought on by physical exertion such as working and walking to work, especially on cold days. This pain was relieved by rest. Dr. Mack noted no sign of distress at this visit and performed an EKG which showed signs of Helms' 1986 heart attack but no changes from his last EKG. Dr. Mack prescribed medication Helms had been on previously for his heart but which he had stopped taking and a prescription for nitroglycerin if Helms had any further chest pain. Helms and his wife then returned home after having the prescriptions filled.

¶6 Helms' wife testified they returned home around 3:00 p.m. Helms stated he felt fine and ate some bread pudding. At 4:00 p.m. he had chest pain, sweating, and dizziness. Helms took two aspirin and his nitroglycerin prescription and laid down to rest. He ate supper at about 9:00 p.m. and thereafter complained of chest pain, sweating and faintness. He told his wife he had pain in his shoulders and the backs of his arms. Helms' wife drove him back to Hettinger, this time to the hospital's emergency room since the clinic was now closed. An EKG was performed at the hospital at approximately 11:00 p.m. At 11:10 p.m., a CPK MB test was administered which measured cardiac enzymes released into Helms' bloodstream and which can be used to time a heart attack. 1 Helms was diagnosed as having a heart attack and, because he had also developed massive gastrointestinal bleeding, was flown to Bismarck, North Dakota where both the heart specialist and the equipment he now needed were located.

¶7 A third EKG was performed at 6:00 a.m. on January 24, 1992 at St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck, North Dakota and yet another later in the day. Also, at 6:50 a.m. a second CPK MB reading was taken. This test showed significant elevation in both the CPK and MB readings, but not enough series of tests were run to determine whether these readings indicated peak elevation. A third CPK MB was later administered but found unreliable for identifying peak elevations as heparin had been given to Helms by that time which could influence the test results. Also this third test was run on a different machine from the earlier tests making comparisons unreliable.

¶8 Helms died January 31, 1992 in the Bismarck hospital.


¶9 Our standard of review from decisions of administrative agencies is governed by SDCL 1-26-37. This statute provides:

An aggrieved party or the agency may obtain a review of any final judgment of the circuit court under this chapter by appeal to the Supreme Court. The appeal shall be taken as in other civil cases. The Supreme Court shall give the same deference to the findings of fact, conclusions of law and final judgment of the circuit court as it does to other appeals from the circuit court. Such appeal may not be considered de novo.

However, when the issue is a question of law, the agency's actions are fully reviewable. Caldwell v. John Morrell & Co., 489 N.W.2d 353, 357 (S.D.1992); Egemo v. Flores, 470 N.W.2d 817, 820 (S.D.1991). Further, we review the findings based on deposition testimony and documentary evidence de novo. Caldwell, 489 N.W.2d at 357.

¶10 The issue we must determine is whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the agency's determination. In re Establishing Certain Territorial Elec. Boundaries, 318 N.W.2d 118, 121 (S.D.1982); Nehlich v. S.D. Comprehensive Health, 290 N.W.2d 477, 478 (S.D.1980); Dail v. S.D. Real Estate Comm'n, 257 N.W.2d 709, 712 (S.D.1977).


¶11 SDCL 62-1-1(7) defining "injury" under our workers' compensation statutes was amended in 1995 to require that the employment or employment-related activities be a major contributing cause of the employee's injury. However, Helms' injury occurred in 1992 and the law in effect when the injury occurred governs the rights of the parties. See West v. John Morrell & Co., 460 N.W.2d 745, 747 (S.D.1990); Lyons v. Lederle Laboratories, 440 N.W.2d 769, 770 (S.D.1989); Wold v. Meilman Food Industries, Inc., 269 N.W.2d 112, 114 n1 (S.D.1978). In 1992, "injury" under our workers' compensation statutes was defined in SDCL 62-1-1(2) as "only injury arising out of and in the course of the employment, and shall not include a disease in any form except as it shall result from the injury[.]"

¶12 This Court has previously defined "in the course of" as imposing a time, place, and circumstance requirement. Zacher v. Homestake Min. Co. of Cal., 514 N.W.2d 394, 395 (S.D.1994): Krier v. Dick's Linoleum Shop, 78 S.D. 116, 119, 98 N.W.2d 486, 487 (1959). "Arising out of" requires the employment contribute to the cause of the injury. Zacher, 514 N.W.2d at 395. In Caldwell, 489 N.W.2d 353, we discussed the issue of causation:

Before an employee can collect benefits under our worker's compensation statutes, he must establish, among other things, that there is a causal connection between his injury and his employment. That is, the injury must have 'its origin in the hazard to which the employment exposed the employee while doing his work.' This causation requirement does not mean that the employee must prove that his employment was the proximate, direct, or sole cause of his injury; rather, the employee must show that his employment was 'a contributing factor' to his injury.

Id. at 357-58 (citations omitted) (emphasis original). See also Sudrla v. Comm. Asphalt & Materials, 465 N.W.2d 620, 621 (S.D.1991) ("It must be established that the heart attack was brought on by strain or overexertion incident to the employment, though the exertion or strain need not be unusual or other than that occurring in the normal course of employment.") (citing Kirnan v. Dakota Midland Hosp., 331 N.W.2d 72, 74 (S.D.1983); 1A Larson, The Law of Workmen's Compensation, Sec. 12.26, at 3-348.71 (1985); Harden v. S.D. Credit Union League, Inc., 87 S.D. 433, 209 N.W.2d 665 (S.D.1973); Oviatt v. Oviatt Dairy Inc., 80 S.D. 83, 119 N.W.2d 649 (S.D.1963)).

¶13 In workers' compensation cases regarding heart attacks, we have long held that " 'to establish the causal relationship between one's employment and his subsequent heart attack, a finding must rest on the testimony of professionals because the field is one in which laymen are not qualified to express an opinion.' " Deuschle v. Bak Constr. Co., 443 N.W.2d 5, 6 (S.D.1989) (quoting Wold, 269 N.W.2d at 115); Podio v. American Colloid Co., 83 S.D. 528, 162 N.W.2d 385, 388 (1968). Both parties offered evidence on the issue of causation by deposition of their medical experts: Drs. Mack, Abrahams, Willoughby, Hoerauf, Schechter, and Sanmartin. Our de novo review of these depositions convinces us that Claimant has not met her burden of proof on this issue.

¶14 As stated previously, Helms was a lifelong smoker 2 and was smoking a pack of cigarettes per day at the time of his injury and subsequent death in 1992. Dr. Abrahams, the cardiologist who saw Helms at the Bismarck, North Dakota hospital, testified that smoking was a medically recognized "precipitating cause of myocardial infarction." 3 Helms' medical history also shows that he suffered a heart attack in 1986 which his treating physician at that time,...

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