Vandre v. State ex rel. Dept. of Workforce Servs. – Compensation for Chronic Illness Exacerbated by Work Injury

Chronic illness that is unrelated to a job function isn’t likely to be considered compensable by the courts unless there is some showing of exacerbation of symptoms or condition as a result of one’s work injury.
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Often, employers vehemently resist these kinds of claims, and routinely issue a denial of benefits, even when it’s clear that but for the work injury, the severity of illness or condition would have been considerably less.

This was the case recently for plaintiff in Vandre v. State ex rel. Dept. of Workforce Servs., a case recently weighed by the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Although our Rock Hill workers’ compensation lawyers recognize laws vary from state-to-state, the issue of occupational illness and compensation is one that affects workers from coast-to-coast in a wide range of industries.

According to court records, plaintiff, a heavy equipment operator, was operating a dozer that day. He exited the machine and was walking alongside of the road when he was struck by an asphalt paver. His right leg was snagged in the vehicle and he was dragged approxiamtely 150 feet. The damage sustained to his right leg was so severe, it had to be amputated just below the pelvis. He also suffered multiple rib fractures, a closed head injury and a collapsed right lung. He was in critical condition when his injuries were first sustained, and his recovery was long-term.

In particular, his lung injury was serious. There were numerous air leaks and the lung collapsed a number of times. It was weeks before he could have his chest tubes removed.

What made this especially difficult was the fact worker had a history of tobacco use, which had culminated prior to his accident in a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Although he was functional prior to the accident, his injuries had resulted in his degree of functional impairment with regard to his lungs classified as “severe.” He received an inhaler, a prescription for oxygen and pain medications. He stopped smoking, but continued to suffer numerous infections and at one point, the 6-foot, 1-inch man dropped to just 120 pounds. He also began to suffer seizure-like activity and began to fall regularly. He was then diagnosed with sleep apnea, which his doctors suspected arose from his use of heavy narcotics prescribed as a result of his injuries.

The doctors treating him would later testify in his claim for benefits that virtually of his health problems were either a direct result of the accident or the accident resulted in an exacerbation of existing conditions.

Although the employer disputed some of the treatments, it generally agreed to cover worker for his injuries sustained in the accident – except for his respiratory treatments. The company argued the worker’s COPD was a self-inflicted condition caused by years of smoking and it pre-dated the accident. The commission agreed, and indicated there was not enough evidence to show his COPD was causally connected to his work injury.

The state supreme court reversed. It was undisputed worker suffered from lung disease before the accident. In order for respiratory treatments to be covered, worker had to show his work injuries aggravated, accelerated or combined with his COPD to produce the condition for which he seeks compensation. The worker did so.

And the defense, meanwhile, did not present its own evidence to counter this, though it did cross-examine plaintiff’s expert witnesses. The defense did indicate worker was receiving oxygen prior the accident and that this prescription was largely unchanged afterward, but the court did not find this fact alone painted an accurate before-and-after picture.

The worker testified that although he’d been prescribed the oxygen prior to the accident, he rarely if ever used it. This was corroborated by co-worker and family testimony. However, he did start using it regularly after the accident, with his collapsed lung and other various infections resulting from the accident.

The state supreme court found this evidence to be compelling, and thus awarded benefits.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Vandre v. State ex rel. Dept. of Workforce Servs., March 31, 2015, Wyoming Suprem Court

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