A workers’ compensation appeal in Washington state has affirmed that a worker was entitled to a special jury instruction at trial. He had already been granted a retrial on a separate, unrelated basis, but this was an important point to clarify in the event there were future appeals.
In the case of Clark County v. McManus, the Washington Supreme Court ruled the plaintiff’s requested jury instruction – which would have indicated plaintiff’s doctor’s testimony should be afforded special consideration – should have been given.
According to court records, plaintiff worked for the county as a street sweeper from 1999 until 2011. he was reportedly forced to quit his job because he suffered a debilitating and degenerative spinal condition that affected his lower back. He attributed this condition to the bumpy ride he endured daily as a street sweeper, plus the layout of the operator’s cab, which was poorly suited for proper ergonomics.
Plaintiff filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits, which were awarded by the state department of labor.
However, that decision was appealed by the county. The industrial appeals judge considered deposition testimony from a number of witnesses, including plaintiff’s attending physician, who supported his claim. This doctor argued plaintiff’s low back disability was caused by his work.
The appeals judge upheld the award of benefits, at which point the employer sought an appeal before a three-member board. The board denied that petition and adopted the appeals judge’s proposed decision and order.
The conclusion was plaintiff sustained aggravation of his preexisting lower back condition, which arose as a direct result of the distinctive conditions of his work.
The county appealed the board’s decision with the superior court, and the case was tried before a jury.
The jury was instructed that the board’s decision was presumed to be correct and that it was the employer who had the burden of proving it was incorrect. Plaintiff requested an instruction that would have informed the jury of the need to give special consideration to the testimony of his attending physician. This does not mean necessarily that jurors should give it greater weight or credibility, but rather that it should be given careful thought in deliberations. The court rejected this request.
The only thing jurors were asked to decide was whether the board was correct in determining plaintiff’s lower back injury arose as a direct result of the distinctive conditions of his employment. Jurors determined the board was incorrect and reversed.
Plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court reversed and remanded – but not because of the lower court’s refusal to give the instruction. On this point, the appeals court ruled, the lower court was correct.
Plaintiff appealed to the Washington Supreme Court. Even though he’d already won his right to a new trial, this point was important as it could arise again.
The court ruled the instruction should have been given. The court ruled that where an attending physician testifies in a workers’ compensation lawsuit, the trial court should give the attending physician instruction. This is not, as the appeals court found, an improper commentary of the evidence, the court ruled. Rather, it is necessary in order for the jury to meaningfully review board decisions.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Clark County v. McManus, April 28, 2016, Washington Supreme Court
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Hartzell v. Palmetto Collision LLC – SC Supreme Court Revives Work Injury Claim, April 30, 2016, Greensboro Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog