Safety and OSHA News

Is worker totally disabled because of injuries and depression?

No one disputes this waitress suffered work injuries. But her former employer argued she wasn’t permanently and totally disabled because of her physical injuries and related depression. 

Lydia Pace worked for Jefferson City Country Club in Missouri as a waitress, bartender and banquet worker.

On Oct. 4, 2002, as she was breaking down some tables, five or six table toppers fell on her, throwing her back into another table and injuring her neck and right shoulder.

Pace had surgery on her neck and shoulder and sought various treatments for chronic pain. Doctors also diagnosed her with depression because of the chronic pain.

She saw numerous doctors seeking treatment and also tried to go back to work, but that caused her to experience increased pain.

Pace was found to have reached maximum medical improvement (MMI) in August 2011.

At a hearing in July 2015, an administrative law judge with the Missouri Division of Workers’ Compensation found Pace had proved she is permanently and totally disabled as the result of her neck and right shoulder injuries coupled with her depression. The Commission upheld the ruling. The employer appealed to a state court.

Doctor v. doctor

The employer challenged the Commission’s decision that Pace’s depression constitutes a compensable injury.

Pace presented testimony from three doctors who found the pain resulting from the 2002 injury is the prevailing factor in the development of Pace’s depression. The company provided medical testimony to dispute that claim.

The Commission found Pace’s doctors to be more persuasive regarding her depression. The employer argued that its expert provided sufficient and competent evidence to prove Pace didn’t have depression. The employer also attacked the opinions of Pace’s medical experts.

The appeals court noted that “determinations with regard to causation and work-relatedness are questions of fact to be ruled upon by the Commission, and the reviewing court may not substitute its judgment on the weight of the evidence or on the credibility of witnesses for that of the Commission.”

Stating that it wouldn’t second-guess the Commission, the court found the previous decision was supported by substantial and competent evidence.

The employer also argued that since Pace was found to have reached MMI, she was ineligible for workers’ comp benefits.

But the court said Pace’s entitlement to future medical benefits can’t be denied just because she reached MMI.

In sum, the court found:

“The Commission explicitly found that ‘Ms. Pace’s restrictions, lack of transferable work skills, and inability to engage in regular sustained activity combined to establish that Ms. Pace is unemployable in the open labor market.’ The Commission applied the appropriate legal standard as it answered the question whether, in the ordinary course of business, any employer would reasonably be expected to hire the worker in her physical condition. The Commission determined that the answer is no and that determination is fully supported by the record.”

Pace’s permanent, total disability benefits were upheld.

(Jefferson City Country Club v. Lydia Pace, Missouri Court of Appeals Western District, WD79405, 9/27/16)

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