A worker’s doctors said exposure to chemicals at work caused occupational asthma and respiratory failure. An expert hired by the company said her breathing problems were due to smoking and morbid obesity. How did a court rule when she sued to get workers’ comp benefits?
Holly Noel-Liszkiewicz worked in customer service for La-Z-Boy Furniture in New Castle, DE. Two years after the company laid her off, she filed for workers’ comp benefits for occupational asthma, pulmonary fibrosis and respiratory failure allegedly caused by exposure to chemicals at La-Z-Boy. The company denied the benefits, and the case went to the state Industrial Accident Board.
The La-Z-Boy facility had a workshop where furniture repairs, including sanding and shellacking, were done. Noel-Liszkiewicz worked in an office area surrounded by concrete walls but next to the workshop. She said she could always smell fumes in the office which caused her to have burning eyes, coughing and headaches. At the Board hearing, two of her former co-workers said they experienced the same symptoms.
After being laid off by La-Z-Boy, Noel-Liszkiewicz found another job, but was forced to stop working because of persistent coughing and shortness of breath.
A pulmonologist diagnosed her with lung disease secondary to chemical exposure. Her family doctor confirmed that diagnosis, and said she also suffered from pulmonary fibrosis caused by chemicals she inhaled at La-Z-Boy.
Another doctor who saw Noel-Liszkiewicz said her prior history of smoking wouldn’t explain her current problems. He also diagnosed her with occupational asthma, pulmonary fibrosis and respiratory failure caused by chemical exposure at La-Z-Boy.
At the Board hearing, a certified industrial hygienist testified on Noel-Liszkiewicz’s behalf. The hygienist hadn’t done any actual measurements of chemicals at the La-Z-Boy facility, but he based his testimony on a comparison to other workplaces where he had measured similar kinds of chemicals and exposures.
In the hygienist’s opinion, there was a causal relationship between Noel-Liszkiewicz’s diagnoses of various breathing disorders and her exposure to chemicals at La-Z-Boy.
Company’s expert disagreed
La-Z-Boy countered that there was very little repair work done on furniture at the facility which was mainly a warehouse. Also, its records showed that in 15 years, there were no workers’ comp claims related to chemical exposure.
The company also had a medical toxicologist examine Noel-Liszkiewicz. The doctor disagreed with her doctors’ diagnoses and attributed her abnormal pulmonary tests to morbid obesity and exposure to tobacco smoke.
After hearing medical experts from both sides, the Board concluded that Noel-Liszkiewicz’s symptoms were more consistent with the opinion of La-Z-Boy’s medical toxicologist than with her own doctors’ opinion. For that reason, the Board decided she should not receive workers’ comp benefits for her various respiratory problems.
Noel-Liszkiewicz appealed to the Delaware Superior Court which upheld the Board’s decision. After that, she took her case to the Delaware Supreme Court.
Her argument was that the Board erred in giving more weight to La-Z-Boy’s medical expert than her own doctors. She told the court she proved her disease was caused by exposure to chemicals when she worked at La-Z-Boy.
But the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that the Board had applied the correct standard in determining that Noel-Liszkiewicz had not proven her illness was caused by her work environment. The Board cited specific relevant reasons for accepting the opinion of La-Z-Boy’s expert over Noel-Liszkiewicz’s doctors.
For that reason, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Board’s decision and denied Noel-Liszkiewicz workers’ comp benefits.
Have you ever faced a situation when an employee claimed workplace chemical exposure caused respiratory problems, but you knew that the person was either a smoker or had other health problems? Let us know in the comments below.
(Noel-Liszkiewicz v. La-Z-Boy, Supreme Court of DE, No. 587, 2012, 2/12/13)