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Written by: Matt Flammia
The Court of Appeals recently held that Plaintiff’s lay testimony was insufficient to establish increased risk in an occupational disease claim.
In Briggs v. Debbie’s Staffing, Inc., Plaintiff worked as a Ceramic Technician, which required him to work a portion of his time on a Voeller machine. The Voeller machine mixes water with various dry ingredients and creates an alleged dusty environment. Following Plaintiff’s termination for attendance related issues, Plaintiff filed a Form 18, alleging he developed COPD and asthma as a result of working as a Voeller technician. During post-hearing medical depositions, Plaintiff’s medical expert initially opined that Plaintiff’s asthma was likely caused by substances he was exposed to at the employer’s facility. However, Plaintiff’s medical expert conceded that he was unaware that Plaintiff frequently smoked cigarettes, had a history of marijuana use, had prior complaints of wheezing, previously treated for allergies with albuterol, and was provided a respirator mask that filtered 95% of air born particles. Defendants’ medical expert opined that Plaintiff’s asthma likely pre-dated his employment, but opined that his asthma was likely aggravated during his employment.
The Deputy Commissioner determined that Plaintiff met his burden to prove a compensable occupational disease, but the Full Commission reversed, holding that Plaintiff had failed to present medical evidence that the conditions of his employment placed him at a greater risk of contracting asthma than members of the general public.
Plaintiff argued that medical expert evidence was not necessary because a determination that an individual contracted asthma due to working in a dusty environment could be deduced by common sense and is one that a lay person could make. However, the Court disagreed and found that questions regarding the root cause of a diagnosed disease could only be answered by medical experts. Regardless of how a plaintiff proves causation or aggravation of an occupation disease, he must also establish that the employment placed him at a greater risk for contracting the condition than the general public. Applying the Rutledge test, the Court determined that Plaintiff merely demonstrated that the dusty environment aggravated the pre-existing asthma condition, which established a causal connection between the disease and Plaintiff’s employment. However, Plaintiff failed to show that his employment exposed him to a greater risk of contracting the asthma than the general public since he failed to provide expert medical evidence to establish this element of his claim.
Practice Tip: Briggs is a reminder of the importance of obtaining expert evidence when complicated medical issues are in question. In most occupational disease claims, the plaintiff must establish both a causal relationship between the plaintiff’s employment and the subject disease as well as that plaintiff was at an increased risk of contracting the disease due to the employment compared to the general public. Contact our Workers’ Compensation team if you have any questions or to discuss this case further.