New Jersey Court OKs Workers’ Compensation in Obesity Death Case

The husband of an obese woman who died of a blood clot after working long hours at her home office is eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits, a New Jersey appeals court ruled in a case that raised questions about the broader implications of the sedentary desk jobs of millions of Americans.

This week’s ruling came in a case that pits claims of whether poor health contributed to her death against whether poor work environment did.

Cathleen Renner, a 25-year employee of AT&T, died in 2007 from a blood clot that formed in her leg and lodged in her lung. She had been working overnight to finish a project in her home office in Edison, where she worked three of five days each week. Her husband filed a workers’ compensation claim on her behalf after her death, claiming the clot developed while she was at her desk.

AT&T appealed, arguing that multiple risk factors unrelated to her job caused the clot. Renner, 47, had an enlarged heart and weighed more than 300 pounds, causing restricted blood flow, according to a medical expert enlisted by AT&T. She had also recently started taking birth control pills, which increase the risk factor blood clots for all women but especially those who are overweight, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Sitting at your desk is a risk in and of itself,” said Renner’s husband’s attorney, Patrick Caulfield. “It seems to be the No. 1 risk factor.”

The appellate ruled that although Renner “led a sedentary life in and out of work,” she was even less active when behind her desk. Because doctors agreed that the clot likely formed during the overnight hours when Renner was working, there was enough evidence to merit a workers’ compensation claim, the judges said.

Asked whether AT&T would appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, spokesman Marty Richter said the company was reviewing the ruling and had no further comment.

Though the ruling might impact future cases, the judges in this case were weighing a specific section of the law dealing with cardiovascular accidents, said Gerald Rotella, chairman of the New Jersey State Bar Association’s workers’ compensation committee.

“When a death is involved, there is always a little bit of a sympathy factor,” Rotella said. “It comes down to whether the facts are enough to let the court make a finding that it is compensable.”

Sitting for long periods of time is a risk factor for blood clots, according to the Mayo Clinic. It recommends seeking out opportunities to stand during work — such as when on a conference call — and taking frequent breaks to walk around.

“I consider it to be a huge public health problem right now,” said Russell Pate, a University of South Carolina professor who has served on the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. “In the space of a few decades, we’ve gone from having a very large percentage of occupations involving regular activity to one where those jobs are very rare.”

Workplace designs are increasingly incorporating ways to minimize the amount of time spent sitting, such as placing low-speed treadmills in offices as desks, Pate said.