What happens when a worker quits after an injury and then decides she deserves bigger workers’ comp payments?
Alicia Howell worked for Nissan North America on an assembly production line.
After working on the line for three years, she began feeling pain, numbness and tingling in both of her hands.
An orthopedic surgeon diagnosed Howell with carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands. He operated on her right hand first, then on her left hand two months later.
The surgeon released Howell to return to work with the restriction that she not operate a pneumatic gun. Howell says Nissan didn’t allow her to return to work because they wanted her to come back without restrictions.
Six weeks later, the surgeon released her without restrictions.
Howell returned to work, however she said the symptoms in her hands continued, she couldn’t hold onto things and she was unable to keep up with the speed of the assembly line.
She left work again, and the doctor determined she had a permanent partial impairment of 5% in each hand. Howell and Nissan settled a workers’ compensation claim for her carpal tunnel injuries using the 5% impairment rating.
When the doctor said she could return to work the second time, Howell was assigned to a particular production line with a faster pace. She told her supervisor there was no way she could work on that line because of her hands.
Howell believed she would be offered work on another line, but her supervisor said that option wasn’t available.
Knowing that she couldn’t keep up with the faster production line, Howell resigned. She searched for a new job, and after six months she was hired at minimum wage.
Howell filed a petition for reconsideration of her earlier workers’ comp settlement.
Under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Law, an employee can seek reconsideration if she is no longer employed by the company at her pre-injury wage. To determine whether an employee is eligible, courts look into whether the employee had a “meaningful return to work.” If the employee didn’t have one, workers’ comp benefits could go up.
The case went to trial.
The trial court found Howell intended and wanted to return to work following her injury. She called her job at Nissan the best one she ever had.
Previously, state courts had found that an employee didn’t have a meaningful return to work when the employer refused to accommodate the employee’s work restrictions that arose from the workplace injury.
The court said that was the case here: Nissan didn’t offer Howell a meaningful return to work.
Therefore, her permanent partial impairment rating to each hand was increased from 5% to 25%, and her workers’ comp benefits went up accordingly.
(Howell v. Nissan, Supreme Court of TN, No. M2009-02567-SC-WCM-WC, 6/1/2011)
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