What may seem like a simple worker’s compensation claim can turn into a surprisingly complicated dispute over the nature of the injury and the payment of benefits. For many years, Reginald Crockerham worked as a forklift operator for Weyerhaeuser Holden Wood Products in Tangipahoa Parish. After almost two years of lower back injuries caused by the forklift’s bad tires, suspension, and seating, Crockerham underwent discectomy surgery and a two-level fusion.
Crockerham filed a claim for benefits with the Louisiana Office of Workers’ Compensation (OWC). The OWC found that Crockerham proved that he suffered a work-related accident within the scope of his employment with Weyerhaeuser and awarded him temporary total disability (TTD) benefits as well as past and future medical expenses. Weyerhaeuser appealed to Louisiana’s Court of Appeal for the First Circuit.
Weyerhaeuser argued that Crockerham’s injury did not meet the legal definition of “accident” under state law. In a workers’ compensation case, the claimant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that an accident occurred on the job and harm came from it. An “accident” is an unforeseeable event that occurs suddenly — with or without human fault — and directly causes an injury. The injury must be more than slow deterioration or gradual weakening. La. R.S. 23:1201.
Weyerhaeuser argued that Crockerham’s lower back surgery was for a degenerative disc disease, and not a workplace accident. Since degenerative diseases are excluded from the occupational hazards covered by Louisiana’s workers’ compensation system, Weyerhaeuser asserted that Crockerham was not entitled to benefits.
Under Louisiana law, the workers’ compensation scheme is generally read in favor of workers. If a worker can show that his employment caused or led to the injury or disability, then causation is proven as long as there is no evidence that seriously discredits the claimant’s testimony and the testimony is supported by the circumstances surrounding the accident. See: Bridges v. Gaten’s Adventures Unlimited, L.L.C., 167 So. 3d 992 (La. Ct. App. 2015).
In Crockerham’s case, although he had experienced back stiffness and discomfort for years, his work performance had not been impaired. Beginning in September of 2012, the pain he experienced from the faulty forklift tires got progressively worse. He took pictures of the tires and reported to plant management each time he experienced pain driving the forklift over unavoidable potholes.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeal agreed with the OWC’s judgment that the poor condition of the forklift and the existence of the potholes caused repetitive spine injuries. Therefore, Crockerham’s surgery was the necessary result of multiple work-related accidents, not a degenerative disease. The Court upheld the OWC’s award of workers’ compensation benefits.
Reginald Crockerham’s case demonstrates the frustrating vagueness that exists in Louisiana’s workers’ compensation law. Although the law is generally to be interpreted in favor of injured workers, within an individual case the claimant must meet a significant burden of tying his or her medical condition to an injury or accident that occured while within the scope of employment. Companies are reluctant to acquiesce to workers’ compensation claims if there is any doubt that an injury is work-related or that it meets the specific statutory definitions. Paying benefits costs the company money, after all. But the system exists to help compensate workers for expenses they face due to work-related injuries. An experienced workers’ compensation lawyer can help ensure that any worker injured on the job can obtain the full benefits to which he or she is entitled under the law.
Additional Sources: Crockerham v. Weyerhaeuser
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Sadie Gibson
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