Can an injured employee’s completely unrelated pre-existing medical conditions ever factor into a permanent total disability claim?
While considering a case involving a deaf worker who argued his hearing loss should factor into a disability claim, an appeals court in Missouri recently found that for such a condition to have an effect, it must have some relation to the injury.
Right knee injured in elevator crash
Robert Schebaum was deaf from childhood and communicated primarily by reading lips and writing. His work history included mostly positions involving manual labor.
In 2006, Schebaum began working part-time for Missouri-based ABB Holdings on an assembly line and was promoted to full time six months later.
On Aug. 2, 2007, Schebaum was working on a freight elevator when the cables broke, causing the elevator to fall and resulting in a tear to his right knee. He had surgery on the knee on Sept. 12, 2007.
Pain leads to another surgery
In June 2008, he was laid off from work at ABB, so he began a factory job with another company, but he couldn’t continue to work there due to knee pain associated with his job duties there.
Schebaum was terminated from this job six months later and didn’t work again until June 2011 when ABB hired him back.
However, Schebaum continued to suffer from pain in his right knee despite getting non-surgical treatment to address the issue.
Another knee surgery was performed Dec. 21, 2011, which led Schebaum to file a workers’ compensation claim against ABB. The claim was settled based on an agreement that the 2007 injury represented a 45% permanent partial disability of the right knee.
Left knee injury leads to disability
On Jan. 14, 2014, Schebaum was walking down a set of stairs at work when the last step swung backwards, causing him to fall and land on his knees. While the right knee wasn’t affected by the fall, Schebaum’s left knee sustained a tear and needed surgery.
Due to the injuries and continued pain in both knees, Schebaum couldn’t continue to work due to the physical nature of the job.
Schebaum filed another claim for both knee injuries on April 30, 2014, resulting in a Dec. 20, 2018, settlement for a lump sum payment of $20,086 representing 25% permanent partial disability of the left knee.
Doctors can’t agree on disability rating
But several of Schebaum’s doctors felt he was permanently and totally disabled because of the injuries to both knees combined with his pre-existing hearing loss, which came with some learning and communication disabilities.
None of the doctors could agree on a disability percentage rating to present to the state’s Second Injury Fund.
Deafness doesn’t qualify as ‘pre-existing disability’
On Nov. 10, 2020, an administrative law judge denied Schebaum’s benefits from the Fund because “he failed to establish he’s permanently and totally disabled as the result of his injury of Jan. 14, 2014, to his left knee in combination with a single pre-existing disability.”
In short, the judge found Schebaum’s deafness didn’t qualify as a pre-existing disability, so he denied extra benefits from the Fund.
On appeal with the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the court agreed with the judge, finding that for a pre-existing disability to be considered, it must be in some way related to the work injury in question.
And while Schebaum’s hearing loss did affect his ability to work, it was separate from, and had no relation to, his knee injuries, so couldn’t be considered a factor in this case, according to the court.