King v. Buckeye Cotton Oil Co.

Decision Date15 July 1927
Citation296 S.W. 3,155 Tenn. 491
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Appeal from Circuit Court, Shelby County; W. B. Rosenfield, Special Judge.

Proceedings under the Workmen's Compensation Act by Mary King for the death of her husband, Ezekiel King, opposed by the Buckeye Cotton Oil Company. From a judgment dismissing plaintiff's petition, she appeals. Reversed and remanded for new trial.


Mary King has appealed from a judgment of the circuit court of Shelby county dismissing her petition for compensation for the death of her husband, Ezekiel King, under the provisions of the Workmen's Compensation Law (chapter 123 of the Public Acts of 1919).

The assignments of error are directed at the action of the trial judge in overruling the petitioner's motion for a new trial. The evidence introduced in the circuit court was not preserved by bill of exceptions, and the merits of the assignments of error are to be tested by written findings of fact, and a written opinion of the trial judge showing his conclusions of law on the facts found.

Ezekiel King was employed by the defendant corporation as a fireman in its boiler room. While in the performance of his duties as fireman he was stricken by heat and suffered with what is usually termed heat prostration. He was removed from the boiler room and bathed with cold water for the purpose of restoring him from a semiconscious condition. A physician having been summoned, he was taken to a hospital, where he died four days later. The workman was stricken about the middle of the afternoon on a very hot day, the government thermometer in the city registering a temperature of 99 degrees at the time. Two deaths resulting from heat prostration occurred in the city on the same day, as the result of exposure to the rays of the sun and humidity. Nothing unusual occurred at the place where King was stricken except the fact of his misfortune.

The immediate cause of the death of the workman was pneumonia which developed on September 10, two days after he was stricken and two days before his death. Prior to the time he was stricken the workman was in good health. The room in which the workman was stricken was well ventilated and the boilers were properly constructed and in good condition. The court found as a fact "that the heat prostration was an exciting or contributing cause of the development of pneumonia"; and in response to the defendant's request for additional findings of fact, the trial court further found that it could not determine and find that the heat prostration "was the direct and proximate cause of pneumonia from which King died, but that it was a contributing, moving, or exciting cause."

The written opinion of the trial court discloses that the court was of the opinion that because the workman was employed as a fireman and subjected continuously to unusual heat conditions, the heat exhaustion from which he suffered might properly be termed "an occupational occurrence," and that it was not an injury within the purview of the workmen's compensation statute.

The trial court was further of the opinion that the pneumonia which was the immediate cause of death, was not a disease "naturally resulting" from the heat prostration because it was not a disease usually, often, or probably resulting from heat prostration.

On these two grounds the trial court reached the conclusion that the petitioner had failed to maintain her right to compensation for the death of her husband.

The injury for which compensation may be awarded under the statute is defined in section 2 as follows:

" 'Injury' and 'personal injury' shall mean only injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment, and shall not include a disease in any form except as it shall naturally result from the injury."

While this court is bound by the findings of the trial judge on questions of fact whenever there is any evidence to sustain the finding, it is not bound by the conclusions drawn by the trial judge from undisputed facts, and may reach a different conclusion from that of the trial court on the same findings of fact. Moore v. C., N. O. & T. P. Ry. Co., 148 Tenn. 561, 256 S.W. 876.

The brief of the defendant presents the contention that the "heat prostration" suffered by King was an "occupational disease" and not an injury within the statutory definition, and that if it can properly be said to have been an injury, it was not an "injury by accident," for the reason that no untoward or unusual occurrence brought it about.

We have found great conflict in the opinions of courts of other jurisdictions as to whether injury or death from heat prostration is within the application of the Workmen's Compensation statutes. The divergence of opinion on the question is so far controlled by differences in the language of the various statutes we have found it impracticable to refer to authorities other than those in accord with the conclusions we have reached. We make no effort to find the "weight of authority" on the subject.

In Meade-Fiber Corp. v. Starnes, 147 Tenn. 362, 247 S.W. 989, compensation was denied to the surviving dependents of a deceased workman whose death was the result of a disease caused by the constant breathing of dust from sacks of soda ash which it was the duty of the deceased workman to handle and move. The question determined by the court was that the disease resulting from the breathing of the dust necessarily caused by the very work in which the employee was engaged did not constitute an accidental injury. The court was of the opinion that the breathing of the dust under such circumstances did not have any element of accident, and for that reason compensation was denied.

Referring to the meaning to be given to the word "accident," as it appears in the statutory definition of injuries within the application of the statute, the court, in Meade-Fiber Corp. v. Starnes, supra, said:

"It is quite true that the use of the words 'accident' or 'accidental' in compensation statutes is not to be given a technical or literal meaning, but this does not mean that they are to be given no qualifying meaning at all. Certainly they imply that the injury must partake of the unusual, casual, or fortuitous. The word 'accident' is derived from the Latin 'ad cidere,' meaning to fall, a befalling, or not designed, and is usually applied to an event or happening in the nature of a misfortune, casual or fortuitous. In some of the statutes the word 'accident' has been defined to mean an unexpected or unforeseen event, happening suddenly or violently, with or without careless fault, producing some objective symptom of injury. The courts generally in dealing with the word have given it a somewhat similar definition. Under statutes like ours, occupational diseases have almost uniformly been held not to be included within the term."

If the dust inhaled by the workman in the case just referred to had brought about such an irritation in his throat, while he was at work, as to cause a sudden and violent paroxysm of coughing, resulting in the rupture of a blood vessel, from which the workman suffered incapacity or death, we do not think the reasoning of the court denying compensation would have been applicable.

So, in the present case, if the workman, overheated to a degree short of prostration or exhaustion, had stepped outside the boiler room, and, cooling off too quickly, had contratced a cold, resulting in pneumonia, no element of accident or injury by accident would have been present, and the cold and pneumonia, whether within the catagory of occupational diseases or not, would clearly not be an injury by accident or the result thereof. In such a case the overheated condition of the workman would be the natural result of the character of work in which he was engaged.

Or if a fireman, by reason of his daily exposure to the increased heat of a boiler room, should become gradually impaired in strength and in his powers of resistance, and should thereby become subject to a disease, his case would clearly be within the rule applied in Meade-Fifer Corp. v. Starnes, supra.

We do not think, however, that heat exhaustion or heat prostration can be said to be a necessary incident or an expected result of employment as a fireman in a boiler room. Whether the condition be caused solely and entirely by the excessive temperature of the room or place in which the employee is at work, or whether the excessive temperature of the place and the present physical condition of the workman combine to produce the result, there is an element of sudden, unforeseen, and unexpected casualty and misfortune in the result. The fireman expected to become hot, but he did not expect to become overheated to the point of exhaustion or prostration. The difference may be one only of degree, but we see no reason why such a difference may not mark the boundary between the expected or anticipated and the unexpected or fortuitous. Certainly it marked the boundary, in the case of the deceased workman, between safety and misfortune.

In Meade-Fiber Corp. v. Starnes, supra, the court stated that the word "accident," as used in the compensation statute, is not to be given a technical or literal meaning.

An early definition of the word, as used in such a statute, is to be found in the opinion of Lord Macnaghten, in Fenton v. Thorley, [1903] A. C. 443, a leading case in England, as follows:

"I come, therefore, to the conclusion that the expression 'accident' is used in the popular and ordinary sense of the word as denoting an unlooked-for mishap or an untoward event which is not expected or designed."

In the case of Ismay, Imrie & Co. v. Williamson, 1908 App Cas. 437, compensation was...

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