Case name: McGowan v. State of Tennessee, No. W2010-00869-SC-WCM-WC (Tenn. 02/15/12).
Ruling: The Tennessee Supreme Court held that a sergeant was not entitled to benefits because his disability was caused by a preexisting condition, rather than a work-related incident.
What it means: In Tennessee, in order for an aggravation of a preexisting condition to be compensable, the aggravation must advance the severity of the preexisting condition or cause a worker to suffer a new, distinct injury.
Summary: A sergeant at a youth development center responded to a fire alarm that was going off in the school area of the facility. While attempting to determine where the fire was located within the building, he was exposed to smoke. He said his head and chest were hurting after his exposure to the smoke. The next night, he went to the emergency room. X-rays revealed bullous emphysema in both lungs. He underwent surgery and applied for workers' compensation benefits. The center asserted that his disability was caused by preexisting emphysema and not his work-related exposure to smoke. The Tennessee Supreme Court held that the sergeant was not entitled to benefits.
The center did not dispute that the sergeant was permanently and totally disabled based on his diminished ability to breathe. The court found that his emphysema was caused by cigarette smoking, and it existed prior to his work-related smoke inhalation.
The sergeant's surgeon implied that the surgery was necessary because of the presence of the bullae, rather than any physiological effect of smoke inhalation. A pulmonary physician said that the surgery was not a reasonable or necessary treatment for the smoke inhalation. Although the physician said the smoke inhalation aggravated the emphysema, he did not state that the smoke inhalation advanced the severity of the preexisting condition or caused a new, distinct injury. Another doctor pointed out that the sergeant's emergency room records did not refer to the typical symptoms of smoke inhalation.
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April 12, 2012
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