When it comes to workers’ comp benefits, is employee hearing loss over a long period of time different from other injuries suffered in the workplace? The answer is key in a lawsuit by more than 40 workers.
Peter Becker and more than 40 other employees sued Murphy Oil Corp. for hearing loss from long-term exposure at the company’s Meraux, LA, refinery.
Becker and the others started working for Murphy as young men and continued for 25 to more than 30 years, until retirement. In many cases, their employment predated the start of OSHA in 1971 and continued after the first workplace noise regulations were enacted.
The workers were all exposed to loud noise and weren’t provided hearing protection. A medical specialist testified at trial that working at the Murphy plant was the most significant factor in their hearing losses.
Murphy tried to get the lawsuit thrown out using a few arguments. First, it said the workers were aware for more than one year that they were exposed to loud noise at the refinery, so the statute of limitations had run out.
However, the court noted that hearing loss is gradual and the workers simply attributed it to getting older. Therefore, the judges said the statute of limitations wasn’t applicable in this case.
Murphy also claimed noise below federally regulated levels couldn’t be considered negligence. The court also rejected that argument.
The company also argued that the hearing loss should be covered instead by workers’ compensation.
Not so, said the court. Louisiana courts had previously ruled that gradual hearing loss isn’t a compensable injury under the state’s workers’ comp law because gradual hearing loss doesn’t meet the definition of an “accident.”
In the first six cases heard, the court ruled in favor of five of the former workers and awarded each one $50,000 in damages plus future medical costs which ranged from $18,000 to $25,000.
The trials for the remaining workers are likely to be similar to these first test cases with similar awards. Murphy could be out hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of dollars.
An interesting note: The court observed that previous rulings regarding occupational exposure to asbestos were “instructive” in the hearing loss case. What do long-term noise and asbestos exposure have in common? Illness or injury connected with the two exposures both occur over time, not as a result of one incident.
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(Becker v. Murphy Oil, Court of Appeal, 4th Circuit, State of LA, No. 2010-CA-1519, 6/2/2011)