Harris v. Southern Commercial Glass – Apportioning Liability for Workers’ Compensation and Disability Benefits

A North Carolina man injured at work in both 2010 and again in 2014 while working at two different jobs is entitled to collect workers’ compensation from both, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has just ruled. worker1

In Harris v. Southern Commercial Glass, the appellate panel affirmed the North Carolina Industrial Commission, which had ruled the worker’s second employer was liable to pay both workers’ compensation and disability benefits to the worker.

All sides had previously agreed plaintiff was seriously hurt at work in 2010, necessitating back injury and ultimately resulting in a maximum medical improvement rating of 15 percent disability. That’s the rating he walked into his second job with. However, he still managed to work full-time – sometimes as much as 70 hours weekly – and lift up to 75 pounds. Then in April 2014, all sides agree he experienced back pain after bending slightly while performing job duties. What the parties sharply disagreed about in this case was the legal significance of that second occurrence.

Defendant employer argued that in the years since plaintiff’s 2010 injury, he suffered recurring incidents of back pain that required him to miss work, and that this instance wasn’t any difference in nature and degree than those other instances, which meant they weren’t liable to pay workers’ compensation. Plaintiff retorted that this was a specific traumatic incident, which he supported with a physician review of an MRI conducted shortly after the incident, wherein the doctor – who had reviewed thousands of MRIs – noted a “significant change” in plaintiff’s symptoms, as well as for the first time a certain disc herniation that he attested was caused by a separate injury.

So the commission had conflicting evidence regarding whether plaintiff had suffered a new compensable injury or whether it was simply a symptom of his earlier injury. The commission resolved this conflict in favor of the plaintiff with consideration of the following facts:

  • While working for defendant at a New York job site in 2014, plaintiff bent over slightly to slide a door handle but couldn’t get back up afterward. He informed his supervisor and his co-workers took him back to his hotel. He could not work after this, but rather remained in his hotel for five days until the job was done. He was in such pain, he’d been unable to do anything other than go from his shower to his bed.
  • Upon his return to North Carolina, he immediately saw a doctor, who noted a significant change in his patient’s condition, plus for the first time evidence of a new herniation. The patient also for the first time expressed interest in having another surgery.
  • His doctor, who had previously not stopped his patient from working full-time, placed him on full disability from gainful employment.

The commission did not find, contrary to defendants’ assertions, this injury was essentially identical to many other prior instances of pain experienced by the employee. Further, the commission ruled that the physician’s opinion, delivered with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that plaintiff needed another surgery was due to the specific injury he suffered in April 2014. That meant the second employer was liable to cover his workers’ compensation for that additional injury.

Finding no error, the appeals court affirmed.

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

Additional Resources:

Harris v. Southern Commercial Glass, Aug. 16, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals

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