Stancliff v. H. B. Davis Co.

Decision Date07 November 1955
Docket NumberNo. 11,11
Citation117 A.2d 577,208 Md. 191
PartiesGertrude S. STANCLIFF, Mother of Christian Stancliff, deceased, v. The H. B. DAVIS COMPANY, Employer, and Globe Indemnity Company, Insurer.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Maurice J. Pressman, Baltimore (Leon H. A. Pierson, Baltimore, on the brief), for appellant.

Deniel E. Klein and W. Giles Parker, Baltimore (Albert A. Levin, Baltimore, on the brief), for appellees.



By stipulation of the parties in an appeal from a decision of the Industrial Accident Commission that the death of an employee was not the result of an accidental injury, the only question to be answered by the lower court, and now by this Court, is the legal sufficiency of the evidence. If the lower court found the evidence legally insufficient to permit a finding that the employee sustained an accidental injury or that his death was the result thereof, it was to answer the issues in favor of the employer and the insurer, and if it found to the contrary, in favor of the claimant. It found that the evidence was legally insufficient and the employee's dependent mother has appealed.

The employee was a young man of twenty. His only previous employment, by a construction company, had lasted but a month, and after a period of inactivity, he sought work at the plant of a paint manufacturer, one of the appellees. A medical examination by the company's doctor found him physically fit and he was hired and assigned to the varnish department. His mother testified that when he came home from work on the first day he had no color in his face, was short-winded and said that he had been vomiting, coughing and spitting up blood all day. He attributed all of this to the varnish fumes at the plant. After three days in the varnish department, a total working time of some eighteen hours, he was transferred, at his request, to the packing and labelling department, which is well away from all other departments and in which he handled only sealed cans. However, he continued to cough and vomit regularly, not only at work but at home, until he had to quit work about three weeks later. His mother took him to the Johns Hopkins Hospital where he remained until his death ten days later. He told several doctors at the hospital that his health had been good until he went to work in the varnish department and that he became nauseated from the varnish fumes and vomited each day about an hour or two after arriving at work.

For the first three days of his employment the boy worked in the open air in the yard area of the varnish department. His duties were to roll fibre board or metal drums on hand trucks, or on the ground, to large kettles, and then to open the drums with an axe. The contents--in some cases a resinate composition and, in others, a petroleum solid known as gilsonite--he broke into smaller pieces with the axe, just as you would break up pieces of coal, and then put them into the two hundred gallon capacity kettles. This, according to the superintendent of the department, created no appreciable dust, and no fumes. The employee did not handle any powders or liquids, only the drums and the solids in the drums. When loaded, the kettles were rolled on their own rollers from the open yard into a room called a stack area. The room contained no windows and just one small door. In the room were oil burners, flush with the floor, and the kettles were rolled over these and under stacks which were just above and slightly larger than the top of the kettles, so that heat and fumes were carried off. The other ingredients needed to make the varnish, such as lime, manganese borate, litharge, manganese naphthonates, cobalt lead acetate, and xylol, were all handled by the man who was in charge of the kettles and the mixing of the varnish in the stack room, or his assistant, and by nobody else. It was testified that one in the yard on a summer day would not notice any odors from the stack room. After the brew in the kettles had been cooked for the proper length of time, the kettles were wheeled into the yard again and taken into another room for further processing. A supervisory employee of the paint company testified that in the twenty-three years of his experience with the same operations, no one had ever had any ill effects in the varnish area. It was shown that at all times during the work of the employee, conditions were normal, usual and just as they were during all other times of operations, and that nothing abnormal, unusual or extraordinary had occurred during the time he had worked.

After it was shown that the conditions and procedures he observed were the usual and normal conditions and the same as those prevailing during the time the boy worked, a toxicologist attached to the office of the medical examiner of Baltimore and an assistant professor of legal medicine at the University of Maryland Medical School, testified that he had spent an hour in the varnish department, both outdoors and within the stack area. His description of working processes and effects coincides with those of the employees of the paint company. He found no hazard in the work. He was asked about a report he had given a firm of analytical chemists in which he said: 'However, if severe coughing were induced by exposure to irritant dusts of some of the above substances (lime, resin, litharge, etc.), such coughing could produce a fatal result in an individual with a pre-existing cardiac condition such as the deceased had.' He said that his hypothesis was based on information furnished him, whereas his opinion on the witness stand was based upon 'personal observation of the area, which I said before was dust free.' He was asked about odor and fumes and his answer was: 'The only odor produced by fumes in that area was a slight tar like odor * * * and that was the only odor.' When he was asked if he had seen any cooked kettles brought into the yard area, he said: 'There was one brought out into the area as I mentioned before. In fact I put my face right over it.' He enumerated each of the products which were put into the kettles either before or after the heating process, one by one, and said that none were toxic or would be irritating to the nose or throat. Some would have a slight odor, but none would cause fumes.

The medical testimony was all in agreement as to the fact that the employee had suffered from rheumatic heart disease for at least a year and probably longer. It differed as to the part his employment played in his death. The assistant medical examiner, who performed an autopsy, testified that the boy had rheumatic myocarditis, mural thrombosis, and chronic passive congestion of the liver, and that he died of heart failure. He said that one who was about to go into an acute phase of rheumatic myocarditis will cough and gasp for breath from the effects of the heart trouble and also, if the failure is severe enough, vomiting will occur, and that all of these symptoms would persist over a period of three weeks. He testified that if the boy inhaled fumes or dust that produced coughing and vomiting '* * * it could increase the extent of cardiac failure to such a degree that he would more rapidly and at an earlier date go into heart failure and die.' The senior assistant resident of the hospital testified that if the employee had inhaled fumes which caused or aggravated the coughing, 'it was possible' that it made the heart failure worse and led to his death. The employer and the insurer, on the other hand, produced two specialists who testified that the boy had rheumatic heart disease for from one to three years, that an acute phase of the disease occurred after he began work, that the nausea and vomiting were due to poor circulation in the stomach, that he died of acute rheumatic myocarditis, superimposed on an existing rheumatic heart disease, and that all of his symptoms were those of, and due to, heart failure. One of the doctors pointed out that people with rheumatic heart disease, such as all medical witnesses agreed the boy had, can die either of prolonged mechanical strain upon a heart that has been damaged, or as a result of an acute inflammatory reaction 'so that a person who has never had rheumatic fever before can have acute process today and die within a week, two weeks, or three weeks of the acute inflammatory process * * * so that I believe his death was a result of active inflammatory rheumatic myocarditis.'

The toxicologist who had examined the processes and procedures of the plant where the boy worked, testified that the symptoms of no color, vomiting, coughing and spitting of blood, did not, in his opinion, come from any hazard or thing connected with his employment and said further that the symptoms could have been caused by any number of things, including '* * * the aftermath of an alcoholic debauch, particularly with the bad heart the man had. The heart itself might have gone into a terminal episode of heart failure, which could have been accompanied by all these symptoms.' There was evidence that for several years the boy drank beer and spirits daily and at times to excess.

We must determine whether there can be gleaned from this evidence enough to permit a finding that the employee suffered an accidental injury. In so doing, we, of course, apply the familiar rule that where there is any evidence from which a rational conclusion to support the claim may be drawn, the weight and value...

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