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Were shoulder problems work injuries or natural aging?

Who knew more about a worker’s shoulder injuries: her own examining doctor, or a physician hired by the company who observed specific job tasks? The answer to that question determined whether the employee received workers’ comp benefits for her injuries. 

Angela Warner worked at a DMAX Ltd. plant in Ohio that made auto parts. She started working there in 1993 on the assembly line and was later transferred to the machining area.

Warner was a floater, working on all 10 machines in the area and trouble-shooting defaults.

Her tasks varied and generally didn’t involve continuous repetitive movements, defined in this case as performed once at least every 30 seconds. However, the work flow was continuous. A portion of her duties involved raising her arms overhead. She didn’t use excessive force. She lifted parts or tools that weighed between 3 and 25 pounds. She worked shifts ranging from 8 to 11 hours up to 6 days per week.

Warner began feeling shoulder pain in October 2009 and made a workers’ comp claim for four conditions involving her right shoulder:

  • rotator cuff tendinitis
  • rotator cuff bursitis
  • shoulder impingement syndrome, and
  • shoulder supraspinatus partial thickness tear.

DMAX denied her claim. Her case went to trial.

Two doctors testified in her case.

Dr. Wunder, the company’s expert, said Warner suffered from a degenerative condition caused by natural aging, not by any sort of occupational injury. He examined Warner and visited the DMAX facility to view her working conditions.

Dr. Saunders, Warner’s treating physician, said the cause of her shoulder problems was the push, pull and repetitive shoulder movements at work. Dr. Saunders didn’t visit the DMAX facility.

A jury ruled in Warner’s favor regarding the rotator tendinitis and bursitis, and the shoulder impingement syndrome (3 out of the 4 conditions). DMAX appealed.

Company: Employee’s doctor didn’t make his case

DMAX argued Dr. Saunders’ testimony didn’t prove the link between Warner’s shoulder injuries and her workplace tasks. Specifically, the company said Dr. Saunders had a limited knowledge of Warner’s working conditions because he didn’t visit the DMAX plant where she worked.

But the appeals court noted: “To arrive at a diagnosis, a physician may rely on facts derived from a patient’s personal recitation of the patient’s history, along with the physician’s physical examination of the patient.”

The court also said how much weight is given to each expert is a question for a jury to decide and it couldn’t find anything wrong with the jury’s reasoning in this case. Warner’s descriptions of her work duties were included in her medical records. Thus her treating physician had an idea about the tasks she performed on the job.

“Although there was conflicting testimony on causation by the two physicians who testified, there was sufficient evidence for the jury to decide in Warner’s favor by giving greater weight to her treating doctor’s opinion,” the appeals court wrote.

The jury’s decision that Warner should receive workers’ comp benefits for her shoulder injuries was upheld.

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

(Angela M. Warner v. DMAX Ltd LLC, Court of Appeals of Ohio, Second Appellate Dist., No. 26644, 10/23/15)

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