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Vandre v. State ex rel. Dep’t of Workforce Servs. – Compensation for Existing COPD

On Behalf of | Apr 30, 2015 | Georgia Workers' Compensation |

While workers who have been injured on-the-job need not prove their employers were negligent, they do need to show their injuries arose out of and in the course of their employment.

In some instances, this is straightforward. A carpenter who falls from a ladder on a job site and twists his ankle should receive compensation. Where matters can get complex is when there is dispute about whether injuries or illnesses were in fact caused by work, or if not, whether they were exacerbated to any great degree by a work accident.

A perfect case-in-point on this is Vandre v. State ex rel. Dep’t of Workforce Servs., a matter that was recently weighed by the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Worker in question was a heavy smoker. Prior to a horrible work accident, he had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He’d repeatedly been instructed to stop smoking, and hadn’t. He’d been prescribed oxygen, but didn’t use it.

When the accident occurred, worker was employed at a concrete mixing firm as a heavy equipment operator. As he exited the dozer and walked along the shoulder of the road, he was suddenly struck by an asphalt paver. The huge vehicle caught his right leg and he was dragged some 150 feet. Damage to his leg was so severe he required amputation. In addition to that, he suffered numerous rib fractures, a collapsed right lung and a closed head injury.

This was undisputedly a work-related injury. And in fact his employer did cover the costs for numerous surgeries, medications and treatments associated with the limb amputation and other conditions.

What employer opposed was coverage of treatments and medications relating to his COPD, the effects of which had significantly worsened after the accident with the collapsed right lung. While he suffered a degree of functional lung impairment prior to the accident, afterward, doctors characterized the impairment as “severe.”

He began using his prescriptions for oxygen and inhalers, as well as for various pain medications and antibiotics for recurring lung infections and medication for depression. He was also diagnosed with sleep apnea, and was prescribed the use of an oxygen device to ensure he maintained steady breathing while he slept. Doctors opined it was the various mix of medications that had caused the condition, something plaintiff had not suffered from previously.

His employer accepted coverage for certain expenses, but refused coverage for the COPD treatments. A hearing examiner sided with the employer, but the state supreme court reversed.

The hearing examiner had found the worker’s COPD was the same before and after his injury, and to the extent it had been aggravated, it was due to the worker’s own actions. The state supreme court disagreed. Although plaintiff’s prescriptions remained about the same, his dependence on those prescriptions changed markedly. Where previously he had been able to function without them, he now needed them to survive each day. Attributing that change entirely to heavy smoking was not appropriate, and defense provided no evidence to support the assertion that heavy smoking alone were the sole cause of his respiratory difficulties, particularly when there was no question he sustained serious damage to one of his lungs in the accident.

Thus, his COPD was exacerbated by the work accident, his treatments for COPD were compensable.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-920-4708 .