Hutchinson v. Tri-State Motor Transit Co.

Decision Date07 November 1986
Docket NumberTRI-STATE,No. 14345,14345
Citation721 S.W.2d 158
PartiesOrmond W. HUTCHINSON, Appellant, v.MOTOR TRANSIT COMPANY, Respondent.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Norman E. Rouse, Collins, Webster and Rouse, Joplin, for appellant.

L.R. Buehner, Buehner & Buehner, Joplin, for respondent.

PER CURIAM.

Appellant Ormond W. Hutchinson, as the surviving husband of Mary Elizabeth Hutchinson, filed a claim under the Workers' Compensation Law against respondent Tri-State Motor Transit Company, her self-insured employer, seeking death benefits arising out of her death which occurred on July 28, 1983, in California. Mrs. Hutchinson was working under the provisions of the Workers' Compensation Law. The claimant and his wife were over-the-road truck drivers and drove as a team. Claimant was the owner of the tractor-trailer which he leased to Tri-State.

The Labor & Industrial Relations Commission entered a final award denying compensation. In so doing, the commission affirmed a prior award of the Administrative Law Judge which had also denied compensation. The findings of the commission included the following:

"The most persuasive, competent and substantial evidence leads the Commission to believe and conclude that Mrs. Hutchinson's untimely death was not clearly job related or work related but was the result of her underlying heart disease and her employment was merely a circumstance of her death and not a cause of it. There is a lack of persuasive evidence that the triggering cause of her death was job related."

Claimant appeals to this court from the final award of the commission, as authorized by § 287.495. 1

Claimant's sole "point relied on" is stated as follows: "The commission erred in relying solely on the medical opinion of Dr. Corcoran. The opinion of Dr. Corcoran did not constitute sufficient, competent and substantial evidence in that it did not consider the effect of the activities engaged in by the claimant preceding her myocardial infraction. The opinion of Dr. Venter did, and was, therefore, the only sufficient, competent and substantial evidence to substantiate an award."

Mrs. Hutchinson was 59 years old when she died on July 28, 1983, at approximately 3:44 a.m. Since 1970 she had a history of high blood pressure, for which she was on medications under the care of Danu Chellappa, M.D., a Joplin, Missouri, physician. She was 5'7"'' tall, weighed 179 pounds, was overweight, and was a smoker. Her death occurred while she and her husband, as co-drivers, were taking a shipment of airplane seats from Los Angeles to the state of Washington.

Mr. and Mrs. Hutchinson left Joplin for Los Angeles on July 23 and she drove six hours on that date. She drove nine hours on July 24, five hours on July 25, and two hours on July 26. When she was not driving she was in the sleeper berth or otherwise "off duty." They arrived in Los Angeles at noon on July 27 and waited there while their unit was being loaded by other workers. When they left Los Angeles at 8 p.m. on July 27, Mr. Hutchinson was driving and he continued to do so until 1 a.m. on July 28. During that five-hour period Mrs. Hutchinson remained in the sleeper berth, sometimes awake and sometimes asleep. At approximately 1 a.m. they went into a cafe at Los Banos, California, where Mrs. Hutchinson had one or two cups of coffee. After a few minutes in the restaurant, Mrs. Hutchinson commenced driving the unit north on Interstate 5, a concrete four-lane highway, and Mr. Hutchinson went to sleep in the sleeper berth.

Mrs. Hutchinson had not mentioned any problems to her husband when she commenced driving the last lap of the fatal trip, and he testified that when he went to sleep in the sleeper berth, "everything was all right," both with his wife and the unit. After Mr. Hutchinson had been asleep for approximately an hour and a half, during which time his wife had driven 90 to 100 miles and had passed through Sacramento on Interstate 5, he heard his wife yelling, "Honey, help me." He awoke as the unit was leaving the road.

Neither the tractor nor the trailer overturned. When Mr. Hutchinson succeeded in stopping the truck, his wife was unconscious and she never regained consciousness. He remained with her until she was transported by ambulance to Yolo General Hospital, Woodland, California, where she was pronounced dead at 3:44 a.m. An autopsy was conducted. According to the death certificate the cause of death was "A) Myocardial Infarction due to B) Severe Coronary Arteriosclerosis due to or as a consequence of C) Hypertrophy Heart and Fibrosis Left Ventricle Moderate."

Claimant Hutchinson testified that the tractor weighed 20,000 pounds and had manual steering. The trailer weighed around 11,000 pounds. He testified that the load weighed around 21,000 pounds but admitted on cross-examination that the bill of lading showed the load weighed only 5,000 pounds. He testified that the unit was "hard to steer--your shoulders get tired. The strain is on your shoulders and under your arms and your neck and your back get tired." The tractor had 13 forward gears and manual shifting. To shift gears the driver had to depress the clutch and it was necessary to keep the "r.p.m.s" between 1700 and 2150. It was necessary for the driver to monitor 13 gauges.

He also testified that it is more difficult to operate a tractor and trailer than an automobile. "You have to have a lot more space to maneuver in and out of traffic. You have to drive defensively. If you pass somebody you just can't whip in like you would with a car. There is strain and mental pressure any time you climb into the cab of a tractor and trailer and start down the road. Any truck rides harder than an automobile."

On cross-examination he said that the tractor was equipped with a special air ride seat which helped to reduce the trauma caused by a rough road. He did not know how much shifting of gears his wife had to do after she took over the driving. He said the tractor was equipped with a 22-inch steering wheel--larger than one on a passenger car--and that operating normally down the highway it is harder to steer than an automobile. He was not injured in the accident and as far as he knew his wife received no physical injuries.

John Venter, D.O., testifying on behalf of the claimant, stated that he specialized in internal medicine which includes heart disease. Claimant's attorney propounded to the witness a lengthy hypothetical question setting forth most of the circumstances previously described. One hypothesized fact included in the question was "in order to turn the wheel it took a significant amount of exertion on the head, arms, back and chest of the operator." Another fact hypothesized was that "as the driver she was sitting directly over the front wheels of the tractor and there was a significant amount of bouncing." The witness was also asked to consider the contents of the records of Yolo General Hospital, the autopsy report, and the death certificate.

Dr. Venter expressed his opinion that Mrs. Hutchinson "died from a sudden cardiac death event--most probably an arrhythmia of sudden onset which preceded her myocardial infarction." The witness also stated that he had an opinion "within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty" as to whether her activities of driving the tractor-trailer unit on that particular evening caused or contributed to her death."

His opinion was that "there is an extreme ... there is an extremely good ... a high probability that the stress and strain associated with driving a large tractor-trailer rig such as this at an early hour in the morning would have caused an imbalance in the amount of oxygen demand by the tissues of the heart that could not be met from a physiologic standpoint because of the fact that she had severe narrowing of the coronary arteries and that this caused regional zones of ischemia, which is related to poor perfusion, which would then have caused a situation such as a lethal arrhythmia or disturbance of the conduction of the heart which would have resulted in loss of consciousness and infarction of the heart. Operation of the rig the night in question did set up a chain of circumstances which eventually ended in her death or contributed to her death."

On cross-examination the witness stated that he concluded that the stress of driving contributed to her myocardial infarction because she was driving and she had a myocardial infarction and there is a certain stress in driving. He also stated that he relied on his own concept of stress created by truck driving as contrasted to any information he specifically had about the effect of stress on Mrs. Hutchinson in driving the unit.

Francis H. Corcoran, M.D., testifying on behalf of the employer, stated that he specialized in the practice of cardiovascular medicine and that he had examined the records of Yolo General Hospital concerning Mrs. Hutchinson, the death certificate, the autopsy report, and the office records of Dr. Chellappa for the period from 1976 through May 1983.

According to Dr. Corcoran the pathologist's report, a part of the autopsy report, revealed ...

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