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N.D.: Workplace Injury Did Not Trigger Preexisting Condition

By Susan R. Heylman  2/19/2014
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Despite evidence that a truck driver’s preexisting degenerating disc disease made him more vulnerable to his work injury, the evidence established that his pain was not a symptom of the preexisting condition and that the injury did not trigger symptoms of his preexisting condition, the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled. Because the truck driver was not seeking benefits for the preexisting condition but rather for the work injury, the court reversed the denial of workers’ compensation benefits.

The claimant drove a dump truck for a construction company. He alleged that he developed pain at the base of his neck and his left shoulder when the truck’s seat belt repeatedly hit him while he was driving the dump truck on rough roads.  He filed a workers’ compensation claim with the North Dakota Workforce Safety and Insurance Fund (WSI), alleging that he sustained a work injury to his left shoulder and neck.

An administrative law judge (ALJ) affirmed the WSI’s denial of the claim for benefits, finding that the work injury was not compensable because the trucker had a preexisting condition; the work injury triggered symptoms of the preexisting condition; and the work injury did not substantially accelerate the progression or substantially worsen the severity of the preexisting condition. The district court affirmed the ALJ’s decision.

The supreme court, however, ruled that the ALJ misapplied the law in finding that the injury was attributable to the trucker’s preexisting condition because the preexisting condition made him more susceptible to the injury.  

The high court noted that, under North Dakota law, a compensable injury did not exist when the claimant’s employment merely triggered symptoms of the preexisting injury, unless the employment substantially accelerated its progression or substantially worsened its severity.

“The fact that an employee may have physical conditions or personal habits which make him or her more prone to such an injury does not constitute a sufficient reason for denying a claim if the preponderance of the evidence indicates that the injury was causally related to the worker’s employment, with reasonable medical certainty,” the court explained.

The trucker’s susceptibility to the injurybecause of his preexisting conditiondid not make the injury attributable to the preexisting condition. Rather, the court said, there must be some evidence that the injury triggered symptoms in his preexisting condition or some other evidence that his current condition was attributable to the preexisting condition.

A preponderance of the evidence did not support the ALJ’s finding that the work injury triggered symptoms in the trucker’s preexisting condition or that the pain he was being treated for was a symptom of his preexisting condition. Rather, the objective medical evidence established a causal relationship between the work injury and the condition for which the claimant was seeking medical treatment.  

The court remanded the case for a determination of the amount and type of benefits.

Parsons v. Workforce Safety & Ins. Fund, N.D., No. 20130197 (Dec. 19, 2013). 

Susan R. Heylman, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in the Washington, D.C., area.

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