Can a worker who claimed his hearing loss was due to on-the-job industrial noise collect workers’ compensation if his audiograms indicated his condition was hereditary in nature?
The West Virginia Supreme Court upheld a denial of benefits because the worker’s history of Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, bilateral tympanic perforation and head trauma was the more likely cause of his hearing loss.
Worker’s doctor finds impairment was job-related
William Fragmin was an employee of TC Energy Group. He filed a workers’ compensation claim on Nov. 19, 2019, indicating he was exposed to loud noise for more than 18 years while working in compressor stations and around mechanical equipment.
Fragmin stated that he was first made aware of his noise-induced hearing loss Nov. 4, 2019, after undergoing an evaluation by his doctor. An audiogram revealed significant hearing loss on the low frequencies and a flat audiometric curve with no recovery in the high frequencies.
The workers’ compensation claim noted that Fragmin had a history of:
- Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, which occurs when a shingles outbreak affects the facial nerve near one of the ears
- bilateral tympanic perforation, which is a tear in the tympanic membrane leading to a connection between the external auditory canal and the middle ear, and
- motor vehicle accidents resulting in head trauma.
There was no commentary from the doctor regarding other potential contributing causes for Fragmin’s hearing loss other than industrial noise exposure, resulting in a 34% impairment.
Independent exam discusses various hereditary factors
An independent medical examination conducted on Jan. 7, 2020, found that Fragmin’s hearing loss began in his early-to-mid 30s and coupled with the fact that testing revealed flat severe loss, the doctor felt that this was “very suggestive” of hereditary hearing loss.
The independent doctor stated that Fragmin’s Ramsay Hunt Syndrome and other medical problems would have an effect on his hearing.
The doctor concluded “that it is very likely that, given his age and the character of the audiogram, the entirety of his hearing loss is attributable to hereditary factors, and very unlikely to be related to occupational noise exposure.”
Court denies claim based on evidence from independent exam
A claims administrator denied Fragmin’s claim based on the results of the independent examination and the West Virginia Office of Judges upheld the decision, finding the independent examination offered sufficient evidence to justify denying the claim.
On review with the West Virginia Supreme Court, the court agreed with the Office of Judges, finding that Fragmin’s doctor never discussed whether his pre-existing health conditions contributed to his hearing loss. Conversely, the independent doctor reviewed Fragmin’s medical history in detail and attributed the entirety of his hearing loss to hereditary factors.