Safety and OSHA News

Did slip-and-fall or previous injury cause worker’s disability?

Many of us in the U.S. will be glad to see winter go away and take with it snow and ice – seasonal causes of slips and falls. In this case, a trucker slipped on ice and hurt his back. Was his inability to work due to that or a previous injury?

James House worked for Mike Brooks Inc. in Iowa as a commercial truck driver. On March 7, 2007, House slipped and fell in an icy parking lot while retrieving cargo. He suffered a back injury.

An MRI revealed “disc herniation with a protrusion of the disc material.” He received treatment and returned to work but continued to feel pain in his back.

In January 2008, while at work, House pushed open a heavy door and experienced an increase in pain.

A new MRI showed “progressing disc protrusion … greater than from the previous exam.”

House underwent back surgery on Jan. 31, 2008. He returned to work on April 1.

On April 23, House told his surgeon he still suffered “significant pain.” The doctor ordered another MRI and ordered House not to work until the results came in.

In November 2008, House had a second back surgery, this time to fuse discs.

His doctor concluded that on July 22, 2009, House attained “maximum medical improvement,” and released him to work with significant permanent restrictions involving lifting, bending and twisting. House was limited to “waist to shoulder level” work only.

House never returned to work for Brooks and filed for workers’ comp benefits.

Brooks contested the comp request, noting House had suffered a prior neck injury at a previous job. The employer argued the neck injury was a greater cause of House’s inability to work than the back injury he suffered at Brooks.

Lack of evidence

Both House’s surgeon and another doctor who examined him said the March 7, 2007 injury from the slip-and-fall on ice was the substantial contributing factor to all of the back problems the worker had.

A hearing commissioner granted House permanent total disability benefits. Brooks appealed, still arguing it was his previous injury that caused his disability. A district court upheld the commissioner’s findings, but a court of appeals reversed the decision. It said the commissioner’s finding of causation wasn’t supported by substantial evidence in the record.

As these cases sometimes do, this ultimately went to the state’s supreme court.

Iowa’s highest court agreed with the original opinion of the commissioner. The court wrote in its decision:

“House presented the opinions of two medical experts, each of whom concluded House’s back injury and all subsequent treatment and surgeries were causally related to the slip-and-fall accident of March 7, 2007.”

The court also noted Brooks presented “no other medical evidence” to convince it otherwise.

So the Iowa Supreme Court ruled House should receive workers’ comp benefits for permanent total disability.

Admittedly, cases in which workers have suffered a previous injury can be tricky. But in this case, you have to wonder why the employer persisted as long as it did since, as the state’s highest court noted, Brooks presented no medical evidence to show it was a previous injury that caused House’s disability.

Workers’ comp insurance can be expensive, particular when you have a claim for permanent total disability. But legal expenses for continued appeals all the way up the legal chain aren’t cheap, either.

Have you had a case in which it was disputed whether an employee’s previous injury or a work-related injury was the primary cause of disability? You can share your story in the comments.

(Mike Brooks Inc. v. James David House, Supreme Court of Iowa, No. 13-0303, 3/7/14)

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  • VJ

    I can see why the company resisted as long as they did. They went in front of 3 courts and one of the three found in their favor, even when they presented no evidence to counter the 2 physicians that treated this man. Once you’re in the system you never know what results the courts are going to return with. It’s worth a shot to these companies to short stop a precedent which may affect you in the long run.