Washington County Sch. Dist. v. Labor Comm’n – Workers’ Comp for Subsequent, Non-Work Injury

Workers’ compensation is intended to provide accessible, adequate coverage of medical bills and lost wages to workers who have suffered an on-the-job injury.
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Injuries that do not occur at work or aren’t work-related generally aren’t going to be covered. However, there may be some exceptions if the work injury aggravates a pre-existing condition or if a subsequent, non-related work injury exacerbates a previous work injury.

The case that highlights one of these possibilities is Washington County Sch. Dist. v. Labor Comm’n, weighed recently by the Utah Supreme Court. Justices were asked to address the causal connection an employee has to prove between an initial, compensable workplace injury and a subsequent non-workplace injury in order to obtain workers’ compensation coverage for the second injury.

According to court records in the case, plaintiff was injured in 2003 when he fell down the steps of a bus while working as a school bus driver for the local school district. He injured his back, requiring immediate medical treatment and then, eventually, spinal surgery.

Four years after the initial injury, he was injured again when a child jumped onto his back, causing him to fall to the ground, while at a local festival. Following that incident, plaintiff experienced a severe stabbing pain that radiated from his back all the way down his legs. He was forced to undergo a second spinal surgery.

Plaintiff asked for – and received – workers’ compensation for that second injury. The state labor commission held the second injury was causally connected to his workplace injury, and on this basis, awarded benefits. The court found the industrial accident years earlier was a contributing factor to his second injury.This was over school district objections that the second injury was not work-related.

The school district appealed this decision, which was affirmed all the way up until it reached the state supreme court.

The state high court did not reverse the lower courts or find that they erred. They did however remand for further reconsideration regarding whether the worker had in fact meet the proof burden. In order for the injury to be compensable, the worker has to show the initial workplace injury was a “significant contributing cause” of the subsequent non-work injury – not merely a “any contributing cause.”

There has to be a meaningful, causal link. This does not necessarily mean there must be a direct causal connection. Rather, it must be “significant.”

In order to meet this proof burden, the worker will need to present a significant amount of expert witness medical testimony to overcome the school district’s assertion that his underlying work injury was merely a contributing cause of the subsequent injury, as opposed to a significant contributing cause.

Although workers’ compensation law is supposed to be construed liberally in favor of the worker, that does not mean such proof burdens are easy to meet. Having an experienced Winston-Salem workers’ compensation lawyer to present your case is essential to success.

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

Additional Resources:
Washington County Sch. Dist. v. Labor Comm’n, Aug. 25, 2015, Utah Suprem Court

More Blog Entries:
Permanent Total Disability Benefits Following Work Injury, Sept. 5, 2015, Winston-Salem Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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