When can a worker with a compensable right-shoulder injury collect workers’ compensation for an injury to his left shoulder, which wasn’t suffered in a workplace incident? Answer: When the right-shoulder injury causes the injury to the left shoulder.
This kind of injury is known as a “compensable consequence” of a work-related injury. The Arkansas Court of Appeals upheld a decision granting benefits to the worker with the injured shoulders because he proved his left shoulder problems were related to the right shoulder injury he experienced on the job.
Suffered right-shoulder rotator-cuff tear while lifting heavy load
Lonnie Echols had been employed as a fire bricker at Nucor Yamato Steel Company since 1996. The position regularly required heavy manual labor.
On April 24, 2019, Echols was lifting a heavy load on his right shoulder when he heard a pop and began to have significant pain.
Nucor provided treatment for what was diagnosed as a complete rotator-cuff tear, which required surgery on July 17, 2019. By Sept. 23, 2019, Echols was back at Nucor on restricted-work duty.
Doctor notes early symptoms in left shoulder
One month later, during a follow-up appointment, the treating physician noted that Echols was experiencing early mild symptoms in his left shoulder. Nucor authorized physical therapy to treat the left shoulder, although Echols’ problems with it persisted even as he continued to work at Nucor.
Echols had an MRI on his left shoulder on Dec. 24, 2019, and was diagnosed with biceps tendonitis and a glenoid labral tear. This required surgery, which was performed on Sept. 23, 2020.
At this point, Echols filed a workers’ compensation claim, which Nucor contested.
Judge brings up possibility of compensable consequence
Echols initially claimed he sustained a compensable work-related left-shoulder injury. Nucor argued the injury wasn’t compensable since Echols didn’t report an incident. Instead, the company contended the injury to the left shoulder was a gradual injury that wasn’t compensable.
An administrative law judge filed an opinion on Feb. 22, 2021, finding that Echols didn’t prove his left-shoulder injury was compensable. However, the judge reserved the issue of whether the injury to the left shoulder should be considered a compensable consequence of Echols’ right-shoulder injury because neither party stipulated in court that Echols had sustained an injury to his right shoulder.
Left-shoulder problem a ‘natural consequence’ of original injury
Echols appealed the decision with the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission, which remanded the case to the judge to decide if the left-shoulder injury was a compensable consequence of his prior injury.
The judge found that Echols failed to prove an injury from specific incident or gradual onset. However, the judge felt Echols proved by a preponderance of evidence that his left-shoulder injury was a compensable consequence of his work-related right-shoulder injury.
Nucor filed an appeal with the Commission, which determined that the left-shoulder injury was a “natural consequence” of the right-shoulder injury.
Testimony, medical reports, MRI count as substantial evidence
On appeal with the Arkansas Court of Appeals, Nucor argued that the Commission’s decision wasn’t supported by substantial evidence and should be reversed.
The appeals court disagreed, finding that:
- Echols credibly testified that after he returned to work he “babied” his right arm because it was still hurting and used his left arm and shoulder instead
- a physical therapist’s report and the treating physician corroborated Echols’ testimony, and
- an MRI of the left shoulder showed abnormal findings, including severe rotator cuff tendinosis.
All of this counted as substantial evidence proving that Echols was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for a compensable consequence injury, according to the court.