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Method of measuring hearing loss questioned in workers’ comp case

Doctors for both an employee and his employer agreed: The worker suffered hearing loss because of his job. But just how much hearing did he lose? The amount paid to him in workers’ comp benefits hung in the balance. 

Orville Lambdin worked for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. from 1972 to 2009. The inside of the manufacturing plant was a noisy place – no one disputed that. Also not disputed: Goodyear didn’t provide hearing protection to its workers until about 1986.

Lambdin says once he was provided hearing protection, he used it faithfully.

But for 14-15 years, he experienced “loud noise” at work for all but 40 minutes of his eight-hour shift.

Shortly after he retired in 2009, he filed for workers’ comp benefits for hearing loss.

Goodyear provided audiograms for its workers starting in 1986. Lambdin’s audiograms from 1986 to 2009 showed a gradual hearing loss.

When he filed for workers’ comp, he reported ringing in his ears and having to turn the TV up. He also was unable to hear normal conversation when there was background noise.

Tennessee’s workers’ comp law required the use of the American Medical Association’s Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment to determine disability.

An otolaryngologist (ears-nose-throat doctor) who examined Lambdin noted he had hearing loss both above and below the 3000 hertz level.

But the formula in the AMA Guides for determining hearing loss didn’t address the higher frequency (above 3000 hertz) loss.

The doctor used an alternate method to calculate Lambdin’s hearing impairment. According to court documents:

The doctor “pointed to research showing that a significant amount of the information contained in speech occurs in the high-frequency ranges, including the sounds made by the letters ‘F,’ ‘S,’ and ‘Th.’ In a quiet environment, our brains are able to use information contained in the low-frequency speech ranges to ‘fill in’ any information that we may miss in the high-frequency ranges. For someone with high-frequency hearing loss, however, the presence of background noise eliminates theses low-frequency cues.”

The doctor said his method of calculating Lambdin’s hearing loss accounted for a person’s inability in a noisy environment to hear speech in the high-frequency range.

Doctors who testified on behalf of the company disputed the findings of Lambdin’s doctor.

Just how far did the company go to disprove the doctor’s alternate test? It brought in the doctor who was chairman of the committee that developed the hearing-loss section of the AMA Guides. It will come as no surprise that doctor found the AMA Guide’s hearing loss formula to be more than sufficient.

The trial court initially assigned a 10% permanent partial disability rating on Lambdin – not taking into consideration the alternate hearing loss formula.

Lambdin appealed, and the trial court reconsidered. It increased the permanent partial vocational disability to 30% based on the results of the alternate test.

Goodyear appealed, arguing that the alternate measure couldn’t be used because Tennessee law made the AMA Guides the exclusive method.

What the law really said

Tennessee law did require use of the AMA Guides. However, the law also laid out exceptions:

“The medical practitioner … shall utilize the applicable edition of the AMA Guides or, in cases not covered by the AMA Guides, an impairment rating by any appropriate method used and accepted by the medical community.”

Lambdin’s doctor cited 19 research studies that backed up his method.

Previous case law from the Tennessee Supreme Court also backed the use of alternate impairment rating methods when the AMA Guides didn’t address the specific situation.

For those reasons, the Tennessee Supreme Court recently affirmed the lower court’s ruling. The court approved the 30% rating.

Lambdin was 59 when he first filed for workers’ comp and already had measurable hearing loss. Under normal circumstances (not working in the noisy environment that Lambdin did), most people just start to notice some hearing loss in their 60s. However, 10% of people have hearing loss by the age of 30, and 25% by the age of 62.

Other causes, such as using firearms without hearing protection or listening to loud music, can cause hearing loss, too. But occupational noise is still a major cause.

What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments.

(Orville Lambdin v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Supreme Court of Tennessee, 1/29/15)

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