By: Matthew Hard
Holding: The Appellate Court affirmed the Commission’s decision and Claimant was awarded benefits plus all reasonable and necessary medical expenses under the Workers’ Compensation Act for his injuries.
Facts: Claimant, John Rodriguez, began working with ABF Freight System as a casual employee. However, after a few months, Mr. Rodriguez became certified as a “spotter” and received a raise. On August 22, 2011, approximately 22 weeks after transitioning to the new position, Mr. Rodriguez, suffered an undisputed, compensable injury when he backed a forklift into a raised steel structure on a loading dock. After the collision, Claimant complained of pain shooting down his left leg and right knee pain. The treating physician ordered an MRI, and Claimant was diagnosed with multiple disc bulges in his back. He later had surgery to correct the disc bulges.
At his one-month post-op follow-up appointment, Claimant complained that he had pain radiating down his left leg. His physician ordered another MRI and diagnosed Claimant with a recurrent disc herniation and a possible torn meniscus in his right knee.
However, in between the two MRIs, Claimant suffered an injury at his home. As he was attempting to get diapers down off of a shelf, Claimant stood on a chair. However, while he was on the chair, he noticed it was somewhat flimsy, and he decided to step down the chair. As he came down, he cut his leg on a jagged edge of that chair.
After an independent medical examination, Respondent’s doctor opined that “if Claimant came down with such force to lacerate his leg, that could certainly be enough force to cause a recurrent herniation, particularly in someone who weighs 388 pounds.” Respondent argues this accident is an intervening cause of the recurrent herniation and torn meniscus.
The Arbitrator ruled that the chair incident was not an intervening cause of Claimant’s injuries and awarded benefits for both the back and the knee. The Commission affirmed the Arbitrator’s decision in part but increased the average weekly wage for the claimant to reflect the wages of the position that he held at the time of the accident without including the wages for the position he held prior to that.
Respondent challenges the Commission’s ruling regarding causation and the calculation of Claimant’s average weekly wage. Respondent also challenges an evidentiary ruling that will not be addressed in this analysis.
Reasoning: With respect to the challenge relating to the Commission’s ruling on causation, Respondent argues several points relating to Claimant’s credibility and his medical history of back problems. Specifically, Respondent argues that Claimant’s continued back problems are related to the accident involving the chair and are not a continuation of the forklift accident. However, the Court stated that Claimant’s medical records support Claimant’s assertion that he did not further injure his back in the accident involving the chair. The records state that Claimant merely presented to the hospital to treat for the laceration and makes no mention of his back.
Respondent also challenges causation by arguing that Claimant had a long-standing history of back problems prior to the forklift accident. However, the Court stated that “an employer takes an employee as he or she finds him,” meaning that a pre-existing condition will not preclude recovery of benefits under the Act.
Finally, with regard to the challenge of the average weekly wage calculation, the Court looked at Section 10 of the Workers’ Compensation Act to see how the calculation of the Average Weekly Wage was to be done. However, the part of the applicable section that stated “in the employment in which he was working at the time of the injury” was not clearly defined. As such, the Court engaged in some statutory interpretation to determine that the language meant the position held at the time of the accident as that would be the wages a claimant would actually be losing.
Conclusion: After reviewing this case, we find several takeaways. First, an accident outside of work that does not hinder or cannot be proven to hinder the recovery from a work-related incident does not prevent a Claimant from further recovery from the initial injury. Next, a Claimant’s medical history of a long-standing pre-existing condition will not preclude recovery if there is an aggravation of that condition. Finally, when calculating a claimant’s average weekly wage, the Commission will look to the position the person was in at the time of the accident, even if that person has not been in that position for all of the 52 weeks leading up to the accident.