A worker who sustained a hernia at work can collect workers’ compensation benefits since the “definite proof” he provided was of high enough quality, according to the Maryland Court of Appeals.
Definite proof in hernia cases refers to the quality of evidence, the appeals court found, and doesn’t “elevate the claimant’s burden of persuasion to clear and convincing evidence.”
The case, United Parcel Service v. Strothers, turned on the meaning of the phrase and whether it referenced the:
- quality of evidence a workers’ compensation claimant is required to submit, or
- burden of proof, which would elevate that burden from a preponderance of the evidence to clear and convincing evidence.
The appeals court upheld prior decisions from the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission and lower courts granting benefits based on the quality of the worker’s medical evidence.
2 work-related hernias within a few years
David Strothers was an employee of United Parcel Service (UPS) and his history of work-related hernias began in May 2016 when he was injured while attempting to dislodge a jam on a sorter chute.
The treating doctor found the hernia was causally related to Strothers’ work injury so Strothers filed a workers’ compensation claim and was awarded benefits.
In September 2019, Strothers was injured again while manually relocating a load of pallets from one trailer onto another. He reported the injury to his supervisor and went to the hospital with right-side abdominal pain and nausea.
A CT scan revealed a second hernia that appeared slightly larger than the imaging of the May 2016 hernia. Strothers filed a workers’ compensation claim for the new injury. A few months later, he had to undergo surgery for the hernia.
After a follow-up visit in January 2020, the surgeon reported that this wasn’t a recurrence of the May 2016 hernia and that Strothers had developed a new hernia due to the September 2019 injury.
New hernia related to one from 20 years prior?
UPS contested the workers’ compensation claim with the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Commission in February 2020, arguing that the there was “absolutely no causal relationship from any medical provider” showing the new hernia was related to the September 2019 work injury. The company claimed the new hernia was aggravated by a non-work-related, pre-existing hernia Strothers suffered 20 years earlier.
Strothers testified that the 20-year-old hernia was in a different area than the one caused by the September 2019 injury.
The commission asked UPS what evidence it had regarding the 20-year-old hernia and the company answered that it had none. Instead, the company said it was relying on the fact that Strothers hadn’t met his burden to show by definite proof that the September 2019 hernia was new.
In March 2020, the commission found that Strothers sustained a work-related injury that caused the new hernia and awarded benefits.
Affirmed in circuit court, Court of Special Appeals
UPS requested another hearing, which was denied, so it sought judicial review in a circuit court.
The circuit court sustained the commission’s ruling, finding that the phrase definite proof didn’t create a higher burden of proof for hernia claims and that the commission didn’t err in finding that Strothers suffered a new hernia.
The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the circuit court’s decision, finding that:
- definite proof refers to the quality of evidence needed to succeed in a hernia claim
- Strothers’ expert medical opinion from the surgeon qualified as definite proof, and
- Strothers satisfied the commission by a preponderance of the evidence that his September 2019 hernia was new.
Law’s language supports prior decisions
On review with the Maryland Court of Appeals, the court found that despite the lack of a definition for definite proof in the state’s workers’ compensation law, the requirement “has existed for as long as the distinction itself.”
“At no point has the General Assembly altered the statute’s language to indicate that definite proof somehow always meant that a claimant had a burden of clear and convincing evidence,” the appeals court said in its decision upholding the lower court decisions.