Within the course of one week, an employee suffered an incident involving her leg at home and then another incident involving her leg at work. She applied for workers’ comp, claiming the injuries were caused by the work incident. Her employer denied her comp claim on the grounds that the first incident at home caused her injuries.
Cathlyn Acker was a meat department employee at a Whole Foods Market in North Carolina. Her job was to stock displays.
One day at work, she was carrying trays of chicken out of a walk-in cooler when her left foot got tangled in shelving. Acker says she “twisted and hopped and landed on her right leg.”
Her right leg became swollen. She was diagnosed with an “extensive post-traumatic bone bruise” and a tear in her meniscus.
She applied for workers’ comp, but Whole Foods denied the claim, saying the injuries could have come from an incident less than a week earlier when Acker stepped in a hole in her back yard and twisted her left ankle.
A workers’ comp hearing commissioner concluded Acker suffered a compensable injury to her right knee, left hip and back arising out of the workplace incident. On Appeal, the North Carolina Industrial Commission affirmed the commissioner’s decision and awarded Acker medical compensation, wage compensation and temporary partial disability payments.
Whole Foods took the case to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
What did the doctors know?
The appeals court reviewed the evidence in the case.
The first doctor to see Acker diagnosed the bone bruises and meniscus tear and said they were “consistent with a trauma.”
When the doctor testified, he said Acker didn’t tell him about stepping in the hole at home. She only told him about the workplace incident. He said he was unable to know whether the earlier home incident caused her injuries.
Acker saw another doctor for an independent medical evaluation. That doctor testified her injuries were related to the workplace incident and that Acker told her she had no symptoms before she tripped at work. However, this doctor also said Acker didn’t tell her about stepping in the hole at home.
But this doctor observed in his report that, even if the meniscus tear existed before she tripped at work, the incident on-the-job would have aggravated any such pre-existing condition.
The Commission found the independent doctor testified to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Acker’s injuries were the result of her workplace incident.
Before the appeals court, Whole Foods argued that neither the initial treating physician nor the doctor who performed the independent medical evaluation rendered a competent opinion that the work incident caused Acker’s injuries.
But the court rejected that argument. It noted the independent physician specifically noted that, even if there was a pre-existing injury, the work incident would have aggravated it. Work injuries that aggravate a previous condition are compensable under workers’ comp.
On top of that, the court noted that Whole Foods didn’t present any medical testimony contradicting the evidence presented by Acker.
For those reasons, the appeals court ruled there was competent evidence to support the Commission’s award of workers’ comp benefits to Acker. The court affirmed the workers’ comp benefits for Acker.
The two take-homes from this case:
- Workplace injuries that aggravate an employee’s pre-existing injury are often compensable under workers’ comp, and
- If you’re going to contest medical evidence presented by an employee in a workers’ comp case, you better have your own medical experts to back up your case.
Have you ever had a case in which it was questionable whether an employee’s injuries were caused at work or at home? Let us know about it in the comments below.
(Acker v. Whole Foods, Court of Appeals of NC, No. COA12-757, 1/15/13)