Occupational disease caused by chemicals secures benefits for estate
Phelps v. Stabilus, No. COA11-1589 (N.C. Ct. App. 07/03/12, unpublished).
Ruling: In an unpublished decision, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that a paint booth operator's lung cancer was a compensable occupational disease.
What it means: In North Carolina, medical opinions based on a reasonable amount of medical certainty that a worker's cancer was causally related to her exposure to chemicals at work support an occupational disease claim.
Summary: A paint booth operator was exposed to hexavalent chromium in the normal course of her employment. She experienced chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, coughing, and wheezing and was diagnosed with lung cancer. She sought workers' compensation benefits, alleging that exposure to chemicals during her employment caused her lung cancer. The employer denied the claim. Later, the operator died from lung cancer. The North Carolina Court of Appeals held that her estate was entitled to benefits because her lung cancer was a compensable occupational disease.
The employer asserted that the operator's witnesses did not offer competent evidence of causation. The court rejected the argument, stating that three doctors testified as to causation based on a reasonable degree of medical certainty. The doctors' testimony "went beyond mere conjecture or remote possibility." The court found that even though the operator had a history of smoking the exposure to hexavalent chromium in her workplace was a significant contributing factor to her development of lung cancer. The court rejected the employer's argument that the doctors' opinions were based on assumptions that misrepresented the operator's exposure.
The employer also argued that the operator did not offer evidence of the amount of exposure to hexavalent chromium or the threshold level necessary to cause cancer. The court rejected the argument, stating that the evidence was not required to prove the claim.
The court pointed out that the operator was exposed to hexavalent chromium in paint until the employer stopped using that type of paint. One of the operator's doctors said that her exposure to chromium during the last four years of her employment may have been a factor in causing her cancer. The insurer at the time of the operator's last exposure was liable.
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September 4, 2012
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