If a worker injures two parts of the same limb in a single incident, does it count as two separate injuries for workers’ compensation purposes or just one?
The Nebraska Supreme Court found that multiple injuries sustained along the same extremity do not have to be considered an injury to a single member or limb under the state’s workers’ compensation laws.
This decision allowed a worker who injured her right wrist and right elbow in a fall at work to pursue permanent disability benefits.
Injury leads to surgeries on wrist, elbow
Paulina Espinoza was assigned to work at a bakery by her employer, Job Source USA. One day in March 2019, Espinoza was struck by a door at the bakery and fell down four steps. She fractured her right wrist and right elbow in the fall. Espinoza had to have surgeries on both.
After reaching maximum medical improvement, the doctor who treated Espinoza’s wrist determined that she had a 9% impairment of her right hand. Another doctor who performed an independent medical examination concluded that Espinoza had an additional 5% impairment to her “upper extremity” due to her elbow injury.
Comp court calls wrist, elbow two parts of same member
Based on the two doctors’ opinions, Espinoza filed for workers’ compensation, claiming that she was entitled to permanent disability benefits due to a loss of earning capacity. She claimed that loss was due to the impairments from the two injuries she sustained to her right arm.
Job Source disagreed, arguing that because Espinoza’s injuries occurred along the same extremity, a workers’ compensation court lacked discretion to consider an award based on loss of earning capacity under state law.
In court, Espinoza claimed the workers’ compensation court could grant an award of benefits based on loss of earning capacity because she sustained injuries to her hand and arm, which are completely different parts.
The workers’ compensation court found that “an injury to the wrist and the elbow of the same arm is still an injury to a single member and does not entitle an employee to a loss of earning power.”
Member = only arms and legs?
On appeal with the Nebraska Supreme Court, Espinoza argued that the workers’ compensation court erred by concluding that an employee who sustains two injuries on the same extremity couldn’t have sustained a loss of use of more than one member.
Espinoza claimed that under the plain language of the law her hand and elbow injuries qualified as a loss of more than one member since hands and arms are listed separately as members.
Job Source said Espinoza’s understanding of the definition of member was incorrect. The company claimed that since the law didn’t specifically define the term, its “plain and ordinary meaning” should be used. That meaning includes only arms and legs.
Variations in dictionary definitions leads to further proceedings
The Supreme Court agreed with Espinoza. It found that while some dictionaries limited the term member to limbs, “many other dictionary definitions more broadly define the term to include parts of the body generally.”
For that reason, the court decided that it was reasonable to interpret the law to cover a partial loss of use of both the right hand and right arm as two different members. This resulted in the court reversing the workers’ compensation court decision and remanding the case for further proceedings.