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Did stroke cancel employee’s workers’ comp disability payments?

An injured employee sought permanent disability benefits under workers’ comp. Just three weeks after filing, she suffered a debilitating stroke. Did the company still have to pay her workers’ comp? 

Linda Carlson worked as a housekeeper for Five Star Quality Care in Nebraska. On Feb. 17, 2013, she slipped and fell at work, fracturing her femur.

Three pins were inserted in her hip. Later she had hip arthroplasty. Carlson never returned to work. Five Star paid all of Carlson’s medical bills and temporary partial disability benefits.

A doctor retained by Five Star examined Carlson on Oct. 8, 2015. He found she had obtained maximum medical improvement (MMI), had a 37% lower extremity impairment, and said she was likely to have significant physical restrictions as a result of her injury. Carlson sought permanent disability benefits.

Three weeks after the petition for benefits was filed, Carlson suffered a catastrophic stroke which left her significantly incapacitated.

Five Star argued that after Carlson’s stroke, she was no longer entitled to permanent total disability benefits.

The Workers’ Compensation Court found Carlson was permanently and totally disabled as a result of her work injury and awarded her permanent total disability benefits. Five Star appealed.

The company asked the Nebraska Supreme Court to conclude the stroke “cut off” Carlson’s entitlement to permanent total disability benefits. The court noted this is a situation which it hadn’t previously considered – there were no prior similar cases in Nebraska on which to base its decision.

Five Star pointed to a sentence in Nebraska’s workers’ comp law to support its argument:

“Nothing in this subdivision shall require payment of compensation after disability shall cease.”

The company suggested that Carlson’s situation was similar to the death of an employee who had been receiving permanent total disability benefits – the payments wouldn’t continue.

But the state’s highest court said the “death analogy” wasn’t supported by law.

Also, the court noted a similar case in Kentucky. A coal miner who suffered from pneumoconiosis, a lung disease caused by inhalation of dust, had a subsequent non-work-related heart attack. A Kentucky appeals court said the miner should still get total disability benefits for his lung disease, even after the heart attack.

The Nebraska Supreme Court found Carlson was permanently and totally disabled as a result of her work-related fall that broke her femur. “The fact that she subsequently suffered a stroke that was neither medically nor causally related, does not relieve Five Star of its obligation to pay Carlson permanent total disability benefits under the Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act,” the court wrote.

(Krause and Hoyt as coguardians v. Five Star Quality Care Inc.Nebraska Supreme Court, No. S-18-009, 11/16/18)

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