Sorensen v. Harbor Bar – Lapse Between Work Injury and Effects Can be Challenge in Proving Causation

When there is a lapse between the time of a work injury and the full manifestation of its effects, it can be challenging to successfully obtain workers’ compensation. However, it is by no means impossible, as the case of Sorensen v. Harbor Bar, LLC showed. bar

The key is to present ample medical evidence proving that a causal link between the incident and subsequent injuries were most probably causally connected.

In this South Dakota Supreme Court case, an employer sought to deny workers’ compensation coverage to an employee who suffered a severe brain hemorrhage requiring brain surgery about one week after being injured at work.

When employee filed for workers’ compensation coverage of her brain surgery, employer rejected the claim on grounds her injuries were the result of a different incident, five days after she was hurt at work.

Here’s what happened:

Worker was employed as a waitress at a bar in late 2009. She was working on New Year’s Eve when a fight broke out among several patrons. She stepped in to break it up. Her co-worker, noticing her getting involved, saw a customer hitting someone who was on the floor. When the co-worker get the aggressor away, he noticed plaintiff was the person on the floor being attacked.

Plaintiff went to the restroom, cleaned herself up and went on to finish her shift. However, several customers noted she had suffered black eyes. She also complained to a number of patrons that she had a headache.

About a week later, she began to suffer severe headaches. She started vomiting. Her boyfriend drove her to the emergency room, where she underwent an MRI. It was then discovered she had a massive bleed in her brain. She was transported to a another hospital that was better equipped for such a procedure. She underwent brain surgery the next day. She ultimately had to undergo three separate brain surgeries.

One of those involved insertion of a temporary drainage tube. The second involved inserting a permanent drain. The third involved connecting blood vessels in the scalp to the inner brain.

The surgeon discovered while performing the third surgery that plaintiff suffers from a disease called moyamoya, which is a vascular brain diseases resulting in closing of major blood vessels, which essentially make the person more prone to bleeding in general, and at far greater risk of a major brain bleed.

Following this, her alleged attacker was arrested. However, there were a couple witnesses – co-workers –  who stated that on or about January 4th, just five days after the attack by the patron, plaintiff was roughhousing at the bar with her boyfriend and brother, and the boyfriend reportedly tried to pick her up but then dropped her on the floor, possibly on her head. However, there was no video of the alleged incident and the witnesses offered different testimony as to the timeline.

Worker suffers from serious mental defects, including memory loss. She can’t tell when she is hungry or full and is unable to manage her own affairs. She qualified for Social Security Disability Insurance. Her doctor testified her workplace injury was a major contributing cause of her brain bleed – her underlying condition notwithstanding. The doctor noted her disease had been asymptomatic prior to the incident.

However, her employer insisted it was the roughhousing incident that was the cause.

A doctor for the employer disputed the causal connection, noting plaintiff’s ability to complete her shift and noting it was only after the roughhousing incident that she became symptomatic. He argued a brain bleed on the scale she suffered would be a “show-stopper,” and she would be unable to function normally in the immediate wake.

State workers’ compensation commission ruled in favor of worker, finding the work-related injury was a major contributing cause of the brain bleed and resulting disabilities. It awarded compensation for the first two injuries, but not the third, as it found that was solely the result of plaintiff’s disease, and thus not compensable.

State supreme court agreed and affirmed. It noted there was not definitive proof that the roughhousing incident – if it happened at all – occurred after the bar fight. A detective investigating the case had given little weight to those statements because there was suspicion the employer had encouraged those witnesses to talk.

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

Additional Resources:

Sorensen v. Harbor Bar, LLC , Nov. 10, 2015, South Dakota Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Newlon v. Teck American, Inc. – Workers’ Compensation Settlement Agreements, Nov. 27, 2015, Rock Hill Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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