Case name: Stewart v. Westfield Insurance Co., No. W2011-00327-SC-WCM-WC (Tenn. 02/16/12).
Ruling: The Tennessee Supreme Court held that a worker was entitled to benefits for his spinal infection that occurred after his work injury.
What it means: In Tennessee, medical testimony that a worker's work-related injury resulted in an infection can establish causation for the infection to be compensable.
Summary: A maintenance worker for an apartment complex was moving a refrigerator downstairs when he felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. The pain eventually wrapped around to his back. An MRI revealed spondylolisthesis and spinal stenosis. He continued to have severe pain after a morphine injection, and he developed partial paralysis in his legs. An orthopedic surgeon diagnosed him with a spinal infection. The worker underwent surgery. He sought workers' compensation. The Tennessee Supreme Court held that he was entitled to benefits.
The complex's insurer asserted that the worker's spinal infection was not causally related to his employment. The worker's treating physician testified that suffering back strain while lifting an object typically does not cause a spinal infection by itself. However, the physician said that trauma could be a "participating" or "contributing" factor in the development of an infection. The physician explained that the worker's medical history, which included diabetes, hypertension, and hepatitis, made him more vulnerable to an infection.
An independent medical evaluator stated that the worker's back injury caused him to develop the spinal infection. The insurer's doctor opined that the worker's spinal infection was not caused or aggravated by his work activities. The court said that the treating physician's and IME doctor's testimonies were sufficient to prove causation.
The insurer also argued that the worker did not give timely notice of his injury. The worker said he told the apartment manager of his injury immediately after it happened and she said she would notify her supervisor. The manager said she first learned of the injury when she received a letter from the worker's attorney. The court concluded that timely notice was provided to the complex.
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March 22, 2012
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