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McDonald v. City of Jacksonville

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

December 20, 2019

Eugene McDonald, Appellant,
v.
City of Jacksonville, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          Date of Accident: November 24, 2016.

          On appeal from an order of the Judge of Compensation Claims. Ralph J. Humphries, Judge.

          Amie E. DeGuzman and John J. Rahaim II, of Law Office of John J. Rahaim, II, P.A., Jacksonville, for Appellant.

          Michael Arington of Eraclides, Gelman, Hall Indek, Goodman, Waters & Traverso, Jacksonville, for Appellee.

          PER CURIAM

         In this workers' compensation case, Claimant, Eugene McDonald, appeals an order of the Judge of Compensation Claims (JCC) denying compensability of his coronary artery disease (CAD) pursuant to the presumption of occupational causation created by section 112.18, Florida Statutes. As explained below, because the JCC put the burden of proof regarding the "trigger" on the wrong party, we reverse.

         I.

         Claimant, a law enforcement officer with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, was on duty on Thanksgiving Day, 2016. While on duty, he attended a voluntary brunch held at his unit's substation, then resumed his patrol duties. He testified that shortly after the brunch, and again at work on Friday, he experienced what he thought was indigestion. On Saturday, Claimant was off duty, but his pain worsened, so his wife took him to the hospital. Doctors at the hospital diagnosed a heart attack (myocardial infarction), and hospitalized him for five days. The medical evidence established that Claimant had CAD, which ultimately led to a plaque rupture, and his subsequent myocardial infarction.

         Later, Claimant filed a petition for benefits seeking compensability of his CAD as the industrial injury. The Employer/Carrier (E/C) expressly denied compensability of the CAD.

         In the ensuing litigation, Claimant produced an opinion from his independent medical examiner, Dr. Mathias, that the cause of his CAD could not be determined. The E/C, in turn, relied on the opinion of the authorized treating provider, Dr. Dietzius, that the cause of the CAD was a combination of non-occupational factors.

         The JCC appointed an expert medical advisor, Dr. Borzak, who opined that "the cause of the event was the presence of hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, diabetes and age" and that those non-occupational risk factors "were sufficiently strong in this case to reach the standard of more likely than not resulting in his coronary event." Dr. Borzak added that "[w]hile the onset of symptoms was on the job, there is no clear or identifiable triggering factor."

         In his final order, the JCC found that Claimant met his burden to prove the statutory criteria entitling him to the presumption of compensability of his CAD, because he proved that he was a member of a protected class, that his "coronary artery disease resulting in a myocardial infarction" qualifies as "heart disease" that could be covered by the presumption, that his pre-employment physical showed no evidence of heart disease, and that he sustained disability based on his hospitalization following the heart attack caused by his CAD. Thus, the JCC explained, because Claimant relied solely on the presumption to establish compensability, the E/C's burden-to rebut and attempt to overcome the presumption-was to present at least competent, substantial evidence that Claimant's CAD resulted from non-occupational causes.

         Once the JCC ascertained that Dr. Borzak had opined that Claimant's CAD resulted from wholly non-occupational causes, the JCC embarked on an analysis of whether there was a "trigger" causing Claimant's heart attack and, if so, whether that trigger was occupational or non-occupational; as authority, the JCC cited City of Jacksonville v. Ratliff, 217 So.3d 183 (Fla. 1st DCA ...


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