Attorney fails to link condition with chemical odor in office
Case name: Potter v. Department of Labor and Industries, No. 67722-5-I (Wash. Ct. App. 12/10/12).
Ruling: The Washington Court of Appeals held that an attorney was not entitled to benefits for her alleged work-related chemical exposure.
What it means: In Washington state, to establish an occupational disease due to chemical exposure, a worker must establish a causal link between her condition and her employment.
Summary: A patent attorney's law firm relocated to newly remodeled offices. She noticed a strong chemical odor and a metallic taste in her mouth. Her legal assistant also noticed a strong odor in the firm's new offices. As the weeks went by, the attorney had a recurring bloody nose and intensifying feelings of disorientation and fatigue. She arranged to work entirely from home. Her doctor diagnosed her with multiple chemical sensitivity disorder, and she sought workers' compensation benefits. The Washington Court of Appeals held that she was not entitled to benefits because her disorder did not arise naturally out of her employment.
The court explained that all she established was the possibility that she was exposed to chemicals in her office that made her sick. Her treating physician, who was an occupational medicine expert, said that some of the chemicals could "potentially cause illness." He discussed formaldehyde but did not state that her exposure to formaldehyde caused her symptoms. Furthermore, the attorney's medical tests came back normal with the minor exception of a high pulse reading and a one-time unexplained drop in blood oxygen saturation.
An industrial hygienist conducted an evaluation of the attorney's office and found the levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide were unremarkable. The industrial hygienist's testimony about how organic compounds off-gas from new furnishings was too general to show that off-gassing chemicals in the attorney's office caused her symptoms.
The court pointed out that the attorney exhibited some of the same symptoms before moving into the new office. She reported reactions to photocopiers and stressful events in her life.
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February 25, 2013
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