When a worker suffers an injury that aggravates a pre-existing condition, this can be grounds for a workers’ compensation claim. However, these types of claims can be more challenging that those that don’t stem from a pre-existing condition. The key is proving that the work injury was causally related to the exacerbation of the existing condition. That’s sometimes a challenging hurdle, as the plaintiff in Parker v. West Pharmaceutical Services recently learned.
Here, the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed a decision by the full industrial commission panel denying benefits – a reversal of the decision reached by the deputy commissioner.
According to court records, the plaintiff filed a Form 18 in August 2013, seeking workers’ compensation benefits as a result of a slip-and-fall injury he suffered at work as a maintenance technician at a drug manufacturing firm.
The plaintiff worked in a highly physical job and reportedly suffered several falls while at work. In the first incident, he slipped and fell on ice in February 2010. The company issued a denial of benefits, countering there was no medical evidence of an injury or accident at work. Based on this denial, the plaintiff requested a hearing before a deputy commissioner.
The deputy commissioner weighed both sides of the case, stipulating to an employer/employee relationship, weekly wage, and compensation rate. In a decision issued in October 2014, the deputy commissioner issued an award after concluding the plaintiff had indeed suffered compensable injuries to his neck and back, with the injury to his neck being a result of an aggravation of a pre-existing cervical condition. The commissioner awarded temporary total disability benefits as of the last day the employee worked, as well as compensation for past and future medical expenses for both injuries.
The defendant company appealed. After considering expert witness testimony from both sides, the full commission found the following facts.
Following the plaintiff’s slip-and-fall, he was diagnosed with an underlying degenerative disc disease as well as a right-sided neck sprain. He was released and returned to full-duty work immediately after being examined. He sought treatment from a chiropractor while continuing to work full-time. He reported burning and tingling in his arm and shoulder, although he did continue to referee basketball games in his free time.
Then, in March 2013, the plaintiff again slipped and fell at work, this time landing on his back and buttocks. He was treated two days later and reportedly suffered no significant injuries. He was released to work with no limitations.
He returned to the chiropractor two months later, complaining of pain and tingling in his fingers. He reported this had been a gradual onset over the course of three weeks. He was diagnosed with cervical dysfunction and continued to work full-time.
Then, in August 2013, the plaintiff was called to fix a broken reflector, and in so doing, while standing up from a squat, his right foot slipped out from under him, causing him to fall backward three feet. He hit his back and right leg. He remained down for a few minutes but eventually finished his shift. He filled out an incident report and was examined by a doctor three days later. He was diagnosed with lower back muscle strain, tissue tenderness, and radicular symptoms in his fingers. He followed up with the company’s insurance adjuster, reporting that his fingers were numb and that he suffered pain in his shoulder and arm. His symptoms progressed, including shooting pain in his back and neck, headaches, and difficulty turning his neck.
X-rays showed not just chronic disc disease but also whiplash-like injuries.
Although one treating doctor opined his pre-existing condition of degenerative disc disease was aggravated by his work-related falls, another was not willing to agree.
The commission concluded the August 2013 incident neither caused nor aggravated the plaintiff’s condition.
The appeals court affirmed, finding the conclusion was supported by competent evidence. Our workers’ compensation lawyers know that in these cases, there can be more than one reasonable conclusion, and the appellate court is not allowed to re-weigh the evidence and substitute their own ruling. The appeals panel can only review to see whether the commission’s decision was sufficiently supported by evidence.
Contact the Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Parker v. West Pharmaceutical Services, Nov. 15, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals
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Repeat Violation for Worker Fall Risk Results in $143K OSHA Penalties, Nov. 18, 2016, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog