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By Elizabeth Daley
(Reuters) - A three-judge panel in Pennsylvania has agreed with a widow who claimed her husband was worked to death, awarding her death benefits after he collapsed during his 14-hour shift working for a municipal water department.
Robert Dietz, 48, died of a heart attack while performing hard physical labor in 2007 for the Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority, a water department based in the historic Philadelphia suburb of Levittown, according to court papers.
It was not immediately known what he was doing during his final 14-hour shift, but he typically operated a jackhammer, repaired water main breaks and dug up tree roots during his 20 years on the job, court papers said.
Judith Dietz and her minor child sought a standard death benefit amounting to 60 percent of her husband's wages and up to $3,000 for burial expenses. Her lawyer declined to disclose Dietz's salary.
A panel of Commonwealth Court judges sided with the widow after taking the unusual step of reversing a prior Workers' Compensation Appeal Board decision that denied her the benefit, a board spokesman said on Monday.
"The overwhelming circumstantial evidence in this case shows that exertion from Decedent’s regular work activities over the course of a 14-hour workday caused his heart attack," Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote on Friday.
In an earlier sworn statement reviewed by the board, a medical witness for Dietz' employer claimed he could have died at any time.
"It was just serendipitous that it happened while he was working," Dr. Walter Schwartz said, according to court papers.
Dietz smoked a pack of cigarettes per day during his marriage, but Dr. Larry Wolk, a cardiac specialist whose sworn statement on behalf of the Dietz family was reviewed by the board, said what killed him was his long work day performing strenuous physical labor.
A lawyer for the Dietz family said the employer has 30 days to decide whether to appeal the decision. The Lower Bucks County Municipal Authority could not be reached for comment.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Daley in Pittsburgh; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Mohammad Zargham)