If a job required lifting 25 pounds, you wouldn’t hire someone with a 20-pound lifting restriction. But let’s say a worker hid that information from you, was injured on the job and filed a workers’ comp claim. Would the worker get benefits?
Kimberly Purcell injured her back while working in 1999. An MRI revealed a disc protrusion, and she had surgery.
After reaching maximum medical improvement, a doctor said Purcell had a 7% partial disability rating for her back. The doctor put her on a 20-pound lifting restriction and encouraged her to find sedentary work.
In 2007, Purcell applied for a job at Friday Staffing, an agency that matched workers with jobs at other companies. The employment application included questionnaires about essential functions and medical history.
On the essential functions questionnaire, Purcell indicated she could lift more than 50 pounds. In the medical history portion, she indicated she had never filed a workers’ comp claim, suffered any injury, undergone surgery or received treatment for back injuries.
Friday Staffing placed Purcell at a company that manufactures automotive parts. Before doing so, it conducted an in-person interview with her, and Purcell said she could lift and carry up to and over 50 pounds.
The job profile for the position at the manufacturing company included carrying boxes of parts. It turned out Purcell often had to lift and carry items weighing up to 25 pounds.
In July 2011 while at work, Purcell re-injured her back. An MRI showed a new, large focal disc extrusion. Since then Purcell has been out of work.
Purcell filed a workers’ comp claim which Friday Staffing denied.
A workers’ comp commissioner also denied her claim, and Purcell appealed to the full North Carolina Industrial Commission.
The Commission found Purcell was required to constantly lift parts weighing between 20 and 25 pounds. Therefore, it affirmed the commissioner’s decision on the grounds that, at the time Purcell was hired:
- She knowingly and willfully made a false representation about her physical condition
- Friday Staffing relied upon this false representation by Purcell, and that reliance was a substantial factor in Friday’s decision to hire her, and
- There was a causal connection between the false representation by Purcell and her injury claim.
Purcell appealed to the Court of Appeals of North Carolina.
The Larson test
In between Purcell’s first and second injuries, the North Carolina legislature amended the state’s workers’ comp law to incorporate what is known as the Larson test.
Basically, it says if an employee lies about a previous injury, an employer can deny workers’ comp benefits for a subsequent injury if certain conditions are met. Those conditions are the ones listed above that the Commission considered in Purcell’s case.
Purcell conceded that the first two parts of the test were met in her case. She claimed the Commission hadn’t proved a causal connection between her false statements and her new back injury. Specifically, she argued there was no evidence regarding the actual weight of the parts she had to carry at work.
The appeals court noted that the Commission found the parts weighted between 20 and 25 pounds which was over her lifting restriction. And since the court found no evidence that fact could be disputed, it upheld the Commission’s findings. Purcell was denied workers’ comp benefits.
Note: Other states have also adopted the Larson test, similar to the one used by North Carolina. In other states, courts have used the test even though it wasn’t enacted into law by the state legislature. Workers’ comp laws and court decisions vary from state to state, so a similar case in another state might have a different outcome.
In fact, before North Carolina added the Larson test to its workers’ comp law, state courts there refused to use the test and wouldn’t deny comp benefits on the basis that an employee lied about a previous injury.
What do you think about the court decision? Is the Larson test fair? Let us know in the comments.
(Kimberly Purcell v. Friday Staffing, Court of Appeals of NC, No. COA13-1252, 8/5/14)