Lifting heavy items is one of the top causes of workplace injury in the U.S., according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports more than one-third of all injuries resulting in missed work days were the result of back and shoulder injuries – often attributed to cumulative trauma and overexertion. Heavily lifting is often the root cause of both.
Still, employers and workers’ compensation insurers will often try to downplay the physical impact of such activities.
In the recent case of Wyatt v. Haldex Hydraulics, the North Carolina Court of Appeals was asked to consider whether a grant of benefits by the North Carolina Industrial Commission to a worker injured by heavy lifting was proper. Ultimately, the appellate court affirmed.
Our Charlotte workers’ compensation lawyers understand the worker in question had been employed by the company since 1988. The firm produced hydraulic gear pumps and transmissions that in turn were purchased by firms that make heavy-duty lawn maintenance equipment, like tractors and lawn mowers.
Plaintiff was trained to work on several different machines between the time he started and the time of the incident. In 2008, claimant and a co-worker were counting aluminum parts kept in tubs on metal shelves. In order to complete this task, plaintiff had to take the tubs off the shelves. The shelves were coated with oil film from the gear manufacturing process. One of the tubs was not properly labeled, and contained a material much heavier than the aluminum he expected to lift. Instead of weighing between 60 to 70 pounds, the tub weighed approximately 280 pounds. Plaintiff fell to the floor after twisting to grab the tub.
He was treated in the emergency room twice that same day for back pain. He was out of work for a couple weeks, but returned with light duty restrictions to not lift more than 25 pounds, twist, bend, stoop or squat. He continued to receive ongoing treatment.
Nearly two years after the accident, plaintiff sought a determination on his permanent disability rating. The commission approved his request, found he had a 7.5 percent permanent partial impairment rating and awarded him $13,000.
It’s worth noting throughout plaintiff’s treatment and almost immediately after the accident, plaintiff began to report seemingly unrelated symptoms. Those included dizziness, nausea, loss of balance, severe headaches, insomnia, fatigue and episodic numbness in his face, torso and limbs. His family reported he had difficulty balancing and walking, could not keep his car on the road, couldn’t keep steady pressure on the gas pedal, dozed off mid-sentence, had a tough time understanding conversations and slept a lot. Previously an active church member, he stayed away for months. He sometimes dragged his foot while walking, regularly slept at his work station and walked slowly and unsteadily.
Finally, in March 2010, a brain scan revealed a herniated cerebellar tonsil, consistent with a condition known as Chiari malformation. This happens when there is compression in the area where the spine joins the brain. It can be genetic, but it can also be caused by trauma. It is not uncommon, experts say, for such a condition to go on for a long time before a proper diagnosis is given.
Despite treatment, claimants injuries worsened and developed into a condition called “brain sag.”
He continued to work for a time, until finally, after suffering a work-related fall, he signed a severance agreement terminating his employment.
Subsequently, plaintiff was appointed a guardian ad litem, due to his continued difficulties with hearing, memory and reasoning. This representative filed a request for hearing for permanent workers’ compensation benefits. Although defendant employer denied causation, the commissioner disagreed. In an appeal before the full commission, the opinion and award were affirmed with minor modifications.
This decision was ultimately upheld by the appellate court as well.
If you have been injured at work in North Carolina, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Wyatt v. Haldex Hydraulics, Dec. 2, 2014, North Carolina Court of Appeals
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Estrada v. Timber Structures et al. – Lapse in Work Injury Insurance Coverage, Nov. 28, 2014, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog