Safety and OSHA News

Did work aggravate a pre-existing condition? Should he get workers’ comp?

According to his doctor, work aggravated a pre-existing condition that this employee had, causing him serious neck pain. The company saw this differently and contested his workers’ comp claim. What was the outcome?

Willard Woods was a welder for Dayton-Phoenix Group Inc. in Ohio. The plant manufactured parts for locomotives.

Woods wore a welding helmet that could stay up when he wasn’t welding and could fall into place to shield his face and eyes through a flick of his head. Woods estimated he used this flicking motion about 100 times per day for all seven years he worked at Phoenix.

On June 18, 2012, Woods flicked his helmet down and felt neck pain. He’d never felt this type of pain before. That night, Woods was awakened because his left arm went numb. Two of his fingers tingled, and he had pain from the left side of his neck all the way down his arm to his fingers. He’d never had this type of pain before.

He went to work, but the pain didn’t go away. He saw a doctor. Following treatment, the numbness went away, but the neck pain didn’t.

The doctor sent Woods for an MRI. A neurosurgeon said Woods had two herniated discs with some degeneration of those discs which were at the lowest part of his neck.

The Ohio Workers’ Compensation Bureau originally approved Woods’ claim for a neck sprain but rejected his claim for substantial aggravation of a pre-existing condition – disc protrusion and herniation. Woods appealed. His case was heard in common pleas court.

A jury rejected Woods’ claim for disc herniation but found he was entitled to workers’ comp benefits for substantial aggravation of disc herniation. Phoenix appealed.

Does it matter if disc herniation was new?

Ohio’s workers’ comp law says an injury does not include a “condition that pre-existed an injury unless that pre-existing condition is substantially aggravated by the injury.”

Phoenix argued that Woods wasn’t eligible for workers’ comp because his disc herniation didn’t exist before the work accident.

Woods’ doctor explained that there was some underlying degeneration of the worker’s neck discs, but it was his work injury when he forcefully flexed his neck that caused the disc herniations, or substantially aggravated his pre-existing condition.

To back up his opinion, the doctor explained the herniation would cause the pain that traveled down Woods’ arm, and he didn’t have that pain until the day of the accident.

Phoenix presented testimony from a different doctor who stated the accident didn’t cause the disc herniation.

After reviewing the case, a state appeals court said Phoenix was looking at the case from the wrong angle. The issue wasn’t whether the disc herniation existed before the accident. The question was whether the herniated disc resulted from the work accident or substantially aggravated a pre-existing condition.

The appeals court found Woods presented enough evidence to support his side of the case. Therefore it affirmed the trial court jury’s decision to award Woods workers’ comp benefits for substantial aggravation of disc herniation.

(Willard K. Woods Jr. v. Bureau of Workers’ Compensation et al, Court of Appeals of Ohio Second Appellate District, No. 26561, 1/22/16)

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