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Workers’ Compensation Case Update – Summer 2010

By Christopher S. Crawford

In Schisster-Boichot v. Caterpillar Inc. 09 I.W.C.C. 1144, the Commission affirmed the Arbitrator’s decision to award benefits to a Petitioner claiming musculoligamentous injuries. Petitioner was out of state on a recruiting trip for Respondent and was struck by a drunk driver while walking on a pedestrian bridge. She was thrown 20 to 30 feet into the air. Petitioner was treated in the emergency room and thereafter underwent extensive conservative treatment. Diagnostic testing was normal except for a positive discogram. No surgery was recommended.

A permanency award of 25% loss of a person was awarded to the Petitioner. The Arbitrator acknowledged that the case was difficult to assess considering that diagnostic testing, with the exception of the discogram, was normal. The Arbitrator concluded, among other things, that the severity of the impact supported the conclusion that the petitioner must have sustained serious and permanent injuries.

It is the Petitioner’s burden to prove the severity and permanency of claimed injuries through medical evidence. The fact that a particular incident involves a severe impact should not be determinative on whether a petitioner sustained injuries. Indeed, it is common for the Commission to reject an argument where a respondent attempts to disprove injury based upon the insignificance of a particular event. It is one thing for a doctor to draw a causal connection between a significant event and an injury. It is a quite another for the Commission to presume severe injuries because of a severe impact without supporting medical documentation. 

Respondents should use this decision to their advantage by arguing that if a severe impact equals a severe injury then the opposite must be true in those cases involving insignificant events.

In Plewa v. Borg Warner 09 I.W.C.C. 1214, a machine operator claimed left carpal tunnel injuries. Petitioner worked full time for nine years as a machine operator. She developed carpal tunnel symptoms which were treated with medication. In fact, her symptoms reached near complete relief at the time of her termination in August of 2008. Her symptoms then worsened, and in December of 2008, surgery was recommended. Her symptoms worsened after she stopped working for Respondent. 

Petitioner was examined at the request of Respondent. The examining physician concluded the Petitioner’s carpal tunnel was idiopathic in nature with a likely secondary cause being Petitioner’s recent chemotherapy treatments. The Arbitrator agreed with the examining physicians’ findings, found that the evidence was not sufficient to demonstrate that petitioner’s carpal tunnel was related to work, and denied benefits.

The Commission reversed stating the Arbitrator failed to consider the empirical evidence supporting a causal connection between Petitioner’s work and the development of carpal tunnel. The Commission found a temporal connection between Petitioner’s long history as a machine operator and the development of her carpal tunnel syndrome.

This decision went against the employer, but the language used to support the Commission’s reasoning is potentially helpful to employers. Respondents often find themselves defending against repetitive trauma claims where the petitioner suffers from a condition which constitutes a risk factor for the development of carpal tunnel. For example, consider the situation where a Petitioner engages in repetitive work without developing carpal tunnel syndrome. Thereafter, the petitioner is diagnosed with diabetes or becomes pregnant, two conditions involving significant risk factors for the development of carpal tunnel. The carpal tunnel symptoms follow the diagnosis of these conditions. In defending against such a scenario, Respondents should argue that the empirical evidence supports a conclusion that the Petitioner’s carpal tunnel is likely related to the underlying medical condition and not his or her employment. There is a temporal connection between the diagnosis of the condition and the development of the symptoms. 

In conclusion, while the end result for Respondents Caterpillar and Borg Warner in these cases was not favorable for them, the reasoning employed by the Commission may be utilized to Respondents’ benefit in future cases.

Originally published in the Summer 2010 edition of Quinn Quarterly.