Just Because a Worker Injured on the Job Could Work Despite a Preexisting Medical Condition Did Not Disqualify that Condition from Serving as a Preexisting Disability

The case of Dirks v. Kraft Foods a/k/a Adair Foods was decided by the Western District Missouri Court of Appeals on July 14, 2015.

In this case both the employer and the Missouri State Second Injury Fund appealed the decisions of the Labor and Industrial awarding workers compensation for her knee cartilage injury (torn meniscus) requiring surgery from a work accident to her left knee and granting compensation for total disability for the combination of that left knee injury on the job with a preexisting right knee injury. While on the job the worker had tripped and fallen on an air hose and fell down onto her knees onto a concrete floor below and immediately felt pain in the left knee.

The injured worker’s own orthopedic surgeon claimed that the employee’s fall in the course of her work had caused the left knee meniscus (cartilage) tear, while the employer’s expert claimed the very same cartilage tear was caused by preexisting arthritis in the left knee. The worker’s own surgeon admitted that the worker’s knee had suffered some long-term arthritis since prior to her fall accident, but denied that it was the main cause or any cause of her knee cartilage tear. However, the company’s expert claimed that the worker’s torn left knee meniscus and arthritis were not work-related and thus not compensable (entitled to workmen’s compensation benefits) as a work-related injury. The injured worker hired a lawyer who filed a clam.

The Missouri administrative law judge who held the trial/hearing on the case decided for the employee, deciding that the worker’s fall on the job was the main cause of the meniscus tear. The judge also decided that the work-related left knee cartilage tear combined with the worker’s preexisting arthritic condition and right knee problems to make the employee permanently totally disabled, ordering the Missouri State Second Injury Fund to pay the difference between the workers compensation permanent partial disability benefits the judge made the worker’s employer and insurer responsible for and permanent total disability the judge made the Missouri Second Injury Fund responsible for paying. On appeal to the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission (LIRC) the Commission agreed with and affirmed the administrative law judge’s decision in favor of the injured worker and against the employer/their insurer and the Missouri Second Injury Fund.

Both the employer/insurer and the state Second Injury Fund appealed the decision of the Commission to the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District. The Missouri Court of Appeals heard this appeal. It agreed with and affirmed the decision of the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission that 1.) the employee’s slip and fall accident onto her left knee was the main cause of her left knee meniscal (cartilage) tear and need for meniscus repair surgery, and 2.) the employee’s left knee cartilage tear from the trip and fall on-the-job injury combined with her preexisting right knee arthritis condition to result in permanent total disability. Permanent total disability is always defined as the injured worker’s inability to compete in the open labor market.

Attorneys for the Missouri Second Injury Fund also appealed, arguing that since the injured worker’s preexisting right knee arthritis still allowed the worker to continue performing her job as a laborer at Kraft/Adair Foods, her preexisting arthritis could not have functioned as an obstacle or hindrance to employment, so that the work injury on the job to her left knee meniscus cartilage had no pre-existing disability to combine with in the first place to render her permanently totally disabled.

The Western District Court of Appeals disagreed with both employer/insurer and the State Second Injury Fund. It held that “it is well-established law that a preexisting but non-disabling condition does not bar recovery of compensation if a job-related injury causes the condition to escalate to the level of disability.” In other words, the appellate court decided that that a preexisting medical condition does not have to prevent a worker from doing their job in order to be considered a disability once a work accident brings the preexisting medical condition to the level of disability.

Attorneys for the employer and insurer argued that the Commission was wrong to believe the opinion of the injured worker’s surgeon who operated on her left knee injury from the fall to the concrete floor onto her left knee because employer’s/ insurer’s experts were more credible than the injured worker’s surgeon. The Court of Appeals pointed out that it was supposed to defer to and respect the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission’s credibility determinations as to which witnesses, including expert medical witnesses, to believe and which to disbelieve.

The appeals court also ruled that the Commission’s determination that the injured worker was entitled to future knee replacement surgery to her injured left knee whenever the left knee required it down the line should be deferred to and upheld. Once again, the Court of Appeals said that such determinations of the credibility of medical expert witnesses were to be left up to the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, for which it would not normally substitute its own witness credibility determination. The appeals courts will only interfere with and substitute their credibility determinations for those of the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission when they find them to be totally against the evidence.

St. Louis Workers Compensation Center can defend and demand your rights to workers compensation benefits. They can fight to legally enforce these rights. They can prevent the company from cancelling or underpaying your benefits. Please call Tom Hyatt for advice and assistance on any work-related injury suffered on the job in St. Louis City, St. Louis County, Jefferson County, Franklin County, St. Charles County, Warren County, Lincoln County, or any other counties in eastern Missouri within 125 miles of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area. Our consultations are completely free of charge. Tom Hyatt will talk to you about your case right away. He will fight as hard he can to enforce all of your rights to Missouri workers compensation benefits. Our attorney’s fee would be a modest percentage of the Missouri workers’ comp disability benefits we get for you. Please call now for a free consultation. (See Contact Us).

Leave a Reply