Morrison v. Wal-Mart – Compensation for Exacerbation of Work Injury

North Carolina law has well established that if a person is injured in the course and scope of employment, he or she is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits to help cushion the financial blow.
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These benefits are available even if the injury involves a pre-existing condition that was aggravated as a result of a work-related incident. It also, as the recent North Carolina Court of Appeals case of Morrison v. Wal-Mart reveals, is applicable in cases where a work-related injury is exacerbated by a non-work-related incident.

The court in Morrison ruled that the commission did not err in granting workers’ compensation benefits to a worker who had suffered a job-related injury that got much worse following a car accident months later.

According to court records, plaintiff was a few months into a job at a large retailer when, while carrying the trash out one night as part of his duties, he felt a “pop” in his hip. He finished his duties for the night and clocked out, but awoke the next day in pain. He didn’t take time off work, and continued as he was scheduled. He didn’t go to a doctor, but he was in pain and limping. He continued with his normal duties, but his supervisor noticed he was limping and asked him about it. Worker revealed what had happened and his supervisor had him fill out an incident report.

Plaintiff continued to work, though he did from time-to-time complain of his hip hurting.

Several months later, he was involved in a serious car accident where the passenger vehicle in which he was riding was struck by a pickup truck. His knee and hip were smashed against the center console. His knee was fractured in two places. This was the first time he received medical treatment with respect to his hip after the earlier work accident. His hip pain got much worse after the crash.

Plaintiff took a leave of absence from work and then filed a notice of intent to file a workers’ compensation claim. The employer and its carrier requested a hearing.

A deputy commissioner decided in favor of plaintiff, ordering the employer to pay compensation until claimant could return to work. The full commission conducted a review and affirmed that decision.

Defense appealed.

They challenged the finding of fact that indicated his hip pain and condition – later diagnosed as avascular necrosis, or death of bone tissue due to inadequate blood supply (tiny breaks in the bone lead to the bone’s eventual collapse) – was caused by the work injury and not the accident. An expert witness testifying for plaintiff opined it was far too early for avascular necrosis to develop from the accident, and was the result of an earlier injury, though the crash exacerbated the condition. Commission largely based its finding of causation on this.

Defense argued the analysis was erroneous. Attorneys argued the fact plaintiff was still able to return to work after the injury. They asserted that the injury as of the car accident was not the direct and natural result of the earlier work injury, even if it aggravated the original injury, meaning it’s not compensable.

Appellate court panel disagreed. First, plaintiff’s ability to carry out his basic job functions was affected and was even noticed by his supervisor. At the very least, plaintiff suffered an injury that was compensable and injured his job performance.

Expert witnesses had stated they couldn’t apportion damage done to the hip between the time of the work accident and the time of the crash, and where apportionment isn’t possible, full compensation is appropriate.

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

Additional Resources:
Morrison v. Wal-Mart, Oct. 15, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
King v. Cowboy Dodge, Inc. – Workers’ Compensation Retaliation, Oct. 14, 2015, Workers’ Compensation Attorney Blog

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