A semi-truck driver who suffered a knee injury during a fall while exiting his truck when he stopped for breakfast will receive workers’ compensation, according to a recent decision by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
The employer appealed the initial grant of benefits on grounds commission erred in failing to identify a specific reason for plaintiff’s fall and secondly in concluding plaintiff’s knee injury was causally related to his work accident and therefore compensable. Plaintiff’s pre-existing arthritis was a primary point of contention in this case.
But the appellate court affirmed, meaning plaintiff will receive benefits for his knee replacement.
According to court records in the case, it was approximately 6 a.m. when plaintiff parked his truck on an unpaved portion of a parking lot at a restaurant in South Carolina, where he intended to eat breakfast. As he opened the driver’s side door and started to get out, his left foot landed unexpectedly in loose gravel or some type of hole, and his left knee twisted. He fell to his right toward the truck and then also twisted his right knee.
Immediately, he felt pain in both of his knees, though the pain in his left knee was more severe. He returned to the office in North Carolina later that day and reported what had happened.
The next day, his employer sent him to a local doctor for a medical exam, and he was diagnosed with a sprain of the left knee, pain in the right knee and degenerative joint disease.
Plaintiff filed a notice of accident and claim for workers’ compensation, to which employer responded with a denial. Plaintiff requested a hearing. In the meantime, he saw an orthopedist regarding his left knee, and the doctor recommended a total knee replacement of that knee, which was performed several months after the accident. That doctor would later testify to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, the injury to that knee was caused by the work accident.
A deputy commissioner sided with plaintiff, meaning he was entitled to coverage of all medical expenses he had incurred or would incur as a result of that injury. The commissioner determined the injury arising out of and in the course of employment caused compensable exacerbation of plaintiff’s pre-existing arthritis in his knee.
Defense appealed. One of the arguments stemmed from the nature of the accident. Although acknowledging as a truck driver, plaintiff would be expected to step down from his truck onto different surfaces, the commission found the circumstances of this injury was the result of an interruption of plaintiff’s normal work routine meaning unusual circumstances contributed to an unusual result and/or the fall was unexplained. Defense argued that the commission’s “and-or” finding was not specific enough in regard to crucial facts of the case. The appeals court noted its displeasure with the term “and/or” in judicial proceedings, but nonetheless supported the court’s finding.
Other arguments centered on causation and the causation testimony of the doctor who performed knee surgery. The appeals court disagreed with these arguments. The doctor, who described the fall as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” had 20 years of practice in sports medicine, and he’d seen this kind of minimal trauma result in a severe outcome like this. Further, there was no evidence plaintiff was unable to do his job prior to the date of injury, but the day after his injury, he was placed on restricted duty and again by another doctor several weeks later.
The bottom line is even though the worker had a pre-existing medical condition, it was the work injury that exacerbated it to the point of necessitating surgical intervention and thus, all related expenses were compensable.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Williams v. Best Cartage Inc., March 17, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals
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Bike v. Johnson & Johnson Health Care – Workers’ Comp Benefits in Spite of Underlying Injury, March 28, 2015, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog