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KY SUPREME COURT EXPANDS OFFSET FOR PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS Wetherby v. Amazon.com, 580 S.W.3d 521 (Ky. 2019)
H. Douglas Jones, Esq. and Margaret Menefee, Esq., Jones Howard Law, PLLC
The Supreme Court of Kentucky has rendered a significant decision regarding the ability to claim a permanent partial disability offset for a pre-existing condition.
In Kentucky, historically, pre-existing conditions were put in one of two categories: 1) pre-existing dormant condition aroused into a disabling reality by the current injury; or 2) pre-existing active condition. In the seminal case,Finley v. DBM Technologies, 217 S.W.3d 261 (Ky.App 2007), the Court held that a pre-existing active condition (subject to an offset) must be impairment ratable pursuant to the AMAGuides, 5th Edition (“Guides”), and symptomatic immediately prior to the work injury. This standard made it very difficult to obtain an offset for most pre-existing conditions.
Finally, the Supreme Court in Wetherby rendered a decision finding that because Kentucky uses theGuides as a basis for permanent partial disability awards, it cannot ignore a pre-existing impairment and ratable condition simply because it did not meet the pre-existing active standard set forth inFinley.
In 2012 while working at Amazon, Wetherby experienced pain and numbness in his neck and right arm after moving heavy boxes from a pallet to a conveyor belt. Wetherby underwent cervical surgery in 2014. Wetherby remained symptomatic following the 2014 surgery. Due to a 1980 injury, Wetherby previously underwent cervical fusions in 1980 and 1985.
It was undisputed that Wetherby was asymptomatic after the 1985 surgery, until the 2012 work injury. However, every physician who examined Wetherby acknowledged he had a pre-existing impairment pursuant to theGuides due to the earlier 1980 injury and related surgeries.
The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that Wetherby had a total impairment rating of 31%. Determining that Wetherby had a 25% pre-existing cervical impairment (offset) due to his prior injury and associated surgeries, the ALJ awarded Wetherby a 6% impairment due to his 2012 Amazon injury.
Holding in Wetherby
Appealing to the Supreme Court of Kentucky, Wetherby maintained the ALJ improperly deducted a pre-existing active condition. Rejecting this argument, the Court analyzed language in theGuides regarding deductions for pre-existing conditions in the assessment of permanent impairment for spinal injuries. The Court determined the 25% pre-existing impairment offset made by the ALJ did not constitute a “carve out” for a pre-existing active condition pursuant to Finley but, instead, was required by the Guides. The Court concluded the ALJ properly excluded the 25% impairment related to Wetherby’s two prior surgeries.
Ultimately, the Court found that Wetherby’s case did not fall within the confines ofFinley because the pre-existing condition was neither dormant nor active. The Court held that in order to be classified as dormant, all of the employee’s permanent impairment must have arisen after the current work injury. Wetherby’s prior condition was not dormant because the physicians assessed a pre-existing impairment rating under theGuides. It also was not active as Wetherby was not symptomatic immediately prior to the work injury. Therefore, the ALJ’s failure to perform an analysis underFinley was not in error.
This is a major “victory” for Kentucky employers. For the first time employers have an argument for a pre-existing impairment offset without having to prove a pre-existing “active” condition pursuant toFinley, i.e., a condition symptomatic immediately prior to an injury.