Work-related hearing loss is one of the most common occupational injuries in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention report an estimated 22 million workers are routinely exposed to hazardous noise levels on-the-job, and an additional 9 million are exposed to chemicals that might negatively impact hearing.
On average, more than $240 million is spent each year on workers’ compensation claims stemming from loss of hearing.
The question recently before the Louisiana Supreme Court in Arrant v. Graphic Packaging International, Inc. was whether gradual hearing loss sustained at work is an occupational disease or a personal injury tort.
The distinction is important because these different types of claims follow different legal trajectory. While an occupational disease would necessitate a workers’ compensation claim, a personal injury tort would instead be dealt with in civil court via lawsuit (or a pre-trial settlement).
A workers’ compensation claim would grant employer immunity from lawsuits in a tort, per the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation law. (This is true for Georgia as well as in Louisiana, where this case originates.)
According to court records, this lawsuit was the result of consolidating numerous lawsuits filed by both current and former workers at a paper mill, box plant and carton plant, all housed at the same facility at varying times.
Plaintiffs are mostly elderly and are retiring from the facility. They all claim to have sustained losses of hearing – mostly at higher frequencies – after being exposed to dangerous levels of noise while working for defendant company.
Details of each plaintiff’s hearing loss is described in court files. In each case, the workers were employed by defendant firm at various times. While each engaged in other activities that might potentially damage their hearing (using a chainsaw, hunting, using power tools and riding lawn mowers) – all without hearing protection – in each case, trial courts had concluded the daily, constant exposure to substantial noise levels at work was a significant factor in loss of hearing.
In each of their lawsuits, plaintiffs alleged defendants (the employers who had operated in the same facility at different times) were negligent in failing to provide proper ear protection while exposing them to dangerous noise levels. Their cases were consolidated.
Defendants responded they were immune from litigation because the state workers’ compensation law’s exclusivity provision barred them from tort actions. The motion was denied and the matter proceeded to trial, where district court sided with plaintiffs and awarded damages of $50,000 to each plaintiff, plus legal costs.
On appeal, though, that finding was reversed. Appellate panel ruled the noise-induced hearing loss was an occupational disease, and thus defendants were immune from liability.
The state supreme court sided with the appellate court.
This does not mean workers are without remedy. They may still pursue workers’ compensation claims for these losses, which would at least allow for coverage of related medical expenses.
For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.