Roger writing the LAWmag
Aug 2010

Lawyer Heart Attack

The heart attack.

These three words alone will be the end of half of every person reading these lines.

The heart attack, which doctors prefer to call myocardial infarction, kills half of those it hits the first time around, and often returns to clean up most of those that it missed the first time around.

There is prevention but little defence to this silent killer. No human alive has blood vessels bereft of plaque which can break off at any time in sufficient size to block the flow of cells to, or within the heart. From that moment on, irreplaceable and limited myocardium cells (the heart muscle) begin to die. As a rule of thumb, once 50% of those cells die, so does the host.

Heart attacks can be brought on by unusual or extraordinary conditions of employment: aka stress. Consider the slightly overweight, 55 year old prison guard who must suddenly fight for his life.

lawyer heart attackIn one documented case, a general manager and supervisor of operations of a gas company suffered a heart attack right after having to work 16 hour days. He applied for and received workman’s compensation.1

In Brown v La France, a textile worker went from operating 3 to 7 looms at the same time and suffered a fatal heart attack, for which he received compensation as a workplace injury – but not without a fight.2

For the lawyer, like most employee-victims, the killer stress doesn’t come from another person; it comes from sudden or prolonged workplace pressures.

Every lawyer has his or her own story of a colleague felled by a heart attack. Indeed, all young lawyers will hear the jealous jibes about the profession as the "widow-maker".

McWhorter, McOverworked and McHeartAttack

And thus did lightning strike the halls of justice in Greenville, South Carolina at 12:35 PM. It whipped through the windows, the black cloak of its grim rider slapping in the wind, to discreetly but surgically take the soul of but one man.

Mr. McWhorter had a job as investigator for the South Carolina Department of Insurance. His office was in Columbia. He normally worked 9 to 5 every week, with an hour for lunch and two 15-minute coffee breaks. He was rarely required to travel. He was married and although a then-mundane fact, he had no history of heart or cardiac conditions.

That was before he was assigned to the conspiracy case. Trial was imminent and in order to prepare, he suddenly found himself driving 1,500 miles in ten days interviewing witnesses from all over the state. It was estimated that in the ten days before his death, he had worked 121 hours.

The trial started on Monday. On the preceding Saturday, Mr. McWhorter logged 1 hours followed by 12 on Sunday, until midnight.

He slept but three hours, if he slept at all, arising at 3:30 to drive to Greenville, a distance of 120 miles.

At 7 AM, he attended a meeting with his boss, Asbury Shorter. Then, at 9 AM, he took his seat next to the state’s lawyer and trial commenced.

The Court adjourned at 12:30. Mr. McWhorter had but minutes to live which, in a fashion, he spent in service to justice as he carried Shorter’s banker’s box of documents to the lawyer’s Courtroom office.

Finally, a moment to himself, to breath and stretch.

He walked down three flights of stairs and opened the front door of the Courthouse and fell, grabbing his chest.

He died.

Irene McWhorter, back in Columbia tried as best she could to pick up the pieces. She applied for compensation and death benefits under the South Carolina Workmen's Compensation Act. The administrative tribunal that doles out these benefits recognized the circumstances and accepted her application.

Enter, once again, the South Carolina Department of Insurance, McWhorter’s employer. They challenged the decision and Irene McWhorter was required to fight an appeal to the circuit court and then, when she won that, the employer  appealed to the Supreme Court of South Carolina.

On March 29, 1968, Irene McWhorter’s entitlement to death benefits under the South Carolina Workmen's Compensation Act was set in stone by the Supreme Court of Sought Carolina as the doctrine of unusual or excessive strain in the workplace as a cause of injury became known as the heart attack standard.

Lawyers Beware

Armed with critical illness insurance, mortgage insurance and law society disability insurance, today’s lawyer plods on to the beat of billable hours, many seeking to be partner while their children grow up miles away under the care of others. Sunday is neither church or family brunch day: it is catch-up day at the office. And when they are home, they tap their Blackberry at the dinner table or pull out their iPad, ignoring their 11-year old's pleas to go shoot a few hoops.

You can help. As Rebecca Nerisen writes:

"Too many lawyers wait until the wheels have fallen off before they address a problem. Lawyers who kill themselves usually give clues ahead of time; those left behind regret not speaking up because they were too shy or scared."


He Loves Lawyers

Far above, the grim reaper fishes.

He loves lawyers who don't exercise, abuse alcohol, are sleep deprived or coffee addicts. In the arteries and veins of barristers, the plaque is always swirled around and churned up, as stress is wont to do, always poised to flip a small wafer onto the highway of blood where it is spun away on a life and death roller-coaster.

Were it to flip up and block the pathway, the pathology report would read “heart attack”.

It is no longer an option for Mr. McWhorter to pause and weigh his priorities but for living, breathing lawyers, there always still time.


  • American Bar Association, Lawyers: Find freedom from anger, anxiety and stress, July 2010
  • Brown v La France Industries, 333 SE 2d 348 (1985; note 2)
  • McWhorter v South Carolina Department of Insurance, 252 S.C. 90 (1969) also at 165 SE 2d 365
  • Nerisen, Rebecca, Lawyers, Anger and Anxiety: Dealing with the Stresses of the Legal Profession (Chicago: ABA Book Publishing, 2010)
  • Wynn v. Peoples Natural Gas Co., 118 S.E. (2d) 812 (note 1, 1961)

Posted in Legal Profession and Lawyers

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