Yarborough v. Duke University – Proving a Compensable Injury

Some work-related injuries are obvious: There is bruising, a laceration, bleeding or a fracture clearly visible on an X-ray. Other injuries may not be easily seen or verified. That does not necessarily mean one cannot receive workers’ compensation for them, but they are tougher to prove. Prior injuries too can prove challenging when trying to establish that the ailment in question is causally related to work.hospitalhall

The recent case of Yarborough v. Duke University before the North Carolina Court of Appeals involves a claim filed by a hospital cafeteria worker who claimed to have suffered a shoulder injury after being struck by a swinging door while returning from delivering patient meals.

The issue in this case was not whether plaintiff was acting in the course and scope of her employment at the time of her alleged injury. Rather, defendant employer disputed that an accident had occurred at all, and the full commission concluded she hadn’t suffered an injury by accident. This case came down to a he-said-she-said matter of credibility.

According to court records, plaintiff started working for defendant in 2010 as a cashier in the cafeteria. More than a year later, she took on a role as a patient food service technician, meaning she was responsible to transport food to patient rooms using a food cart. This required her to push the food cart through swinging double doors at certain points. One morning in August 2013, she had just served breakfast and returned the cart to an elevator. She was then empty-handed when she passed through a set of double doors. However, one of those double doors swung back more quickly than she expected it would. It struck her on the left shoulder, she said, causing her to instantly be in pain. She right away realized she was unable to move her left arm. She told her boss and filed a report.

Several hours later, she sought medical attention at the company clinic. However at that time, her story of how the injury occurred was slightly different. She told the doctor then that she was “getting a cart” (not that she had just dropped it off) and that the pain developed “gradually,” rather than instantly. She then filled out a form and signed it to verify its accuracy.

Then another medical record created in a subsequent visit, she indicated that she was pushing a cart through the door when the door bumped her left shoulder. She said she didn’t experience any pain that was unusual until about 30 seconds later, when she went to embrace a co-worker. She also reported she had suffered no prior injuries to her shoulder, back or chest. The doctor could find no evidence of bruising, redness, deformity or other abnormal swelling or other issue. She was referred to a physical therapist and put on light duty.

Two weeks later, she was cleared for full duty with no restrictions. Two months later, she had an MRI that showed her rotator cuff was at full thickness, and the doctor opined that with no contradictory evidence, it was more likely than not caused by the door incident. The doctor specifically noted she had indicated no prior shoulder problems.

Yet as the full commission would later note, plaintiff was involved in two car accidents – one in June 2009 and another in May 2013. Those resulted in injury to her neck, shoulder, arm and back.

A single commissioner awarded her workers’ compensation benefits, but this ruling was later reversed by the full commission, which noted plaintiff’s prior injuries and inconsistent testimony. Commission found plaintiff not credible and gave greater weight to the employer’s expert witnesses than to the worker’s.

The appellate court affirmed.

Because the commission found her testimony not credible – and the commission is the sole judge of witness credibility and the amount of weight given to their testimony – the question of a causal connection before the North Carolina Court of Appeals was moot.

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

Additional Resources:

Yarborough v. Duke University , Sept. 20, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:

Bentley v. Piner Construction – New Hearing Granted on Employee Status in WC Case, Sept. 23, 2016, Greensboro Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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