Standard of Appellate Review in Partial permanent disability workers' compensation case

Claimant Orsola Doria, sixty-eight years old at the time of her alleged “accident” filed occupational and specific accident claims against her employer alleging that as a result of her employment as a housekeeper for five years she was totally and completely disabled as a result of the following:

“occupational exposure to dust, fumes, pulmonary irritants, bending, lifting, repeated manipulations, standing, stress, strain, adverse environment causing occupational conditions and diseases . . . .she alleged impairment to her “chest, lungs, nose, throat, neck, back, knees, arthritis, nervous system, neurosis, and complications arising therefrom.”

The claimant presented the testimony of three doctors. Dr. Ahmad, an orthopedist, diagnosed “spinal sprain, arthritis, and [muscle pain.” Dr. Latimer, a psychiatrist, diagnosed her as suffering from “post concussion syndrome, chronic headaches, fatigue and depression” and Dr. Friedman, found that the claimant had “chronic bronchitis.”

Respondent’s doctors found no disability except for 2.5% of permanent partial total for “post-concussion syndrome” related to an incident where a ceiling tile fell on the claimant’s head.

After eight (8) trial days, the Judge of Compensation found a permanent partial disability of 30% of partial total and dismissed the petitioner’s claims against the Second Injury Fund. The claimant appealed.

The Appellate Panel cited the standard of review (exhaustively discussed in our book) found in Tlumac v. High Bridge Stone, stating that the appellate court will not disturb the fact findings of a Judge of Compensation provided they “are supported by substantial credible evidence in the record and not so wide off the mark as to be manifestly mistaken.”

Post-Tlumac, the ‘threshold’ for appellate review has been raised. A party seeking review of the decision of a Judge of Compensation has a difficult bar to surmount. The decision in Doria (above) should lend support to a Judge applying common-sense to a trumped-up claim.

Case: Doria v. Bayonne Hospital, A-4874-06T1 (App. Div. decided June 27, 2008)(Judges Coburn, Chambers, and Waugh, unpublished as of blog date). Attorneys for the claimant: Freeman & Bass.

Trial practice – new case

Many Second Injury Fund Cases end with a Judge of Compensation ruling that the Fund is dismissed from the case. This usually happens when the Judge determines that (a) the claimant is not totally disabled, or (b) the claimant was totally disabled as a result of the last accident alone, or (c) the claimant’s pre-existing conditions were not disabling.

In the case of Vassilatos v. Mercer Wrecking Recycling Corporation, decided July 2, 2008, the Appellate Judges (Judges Fuentes and Grall) reviewed whether the workers’ compensation judge made specific-enough findings as to whether two intervening accidents “caused or contributed” to the claimant’s permanent disability.

The claimant in Vassilatos suffered injury to his right ankle and leg. He received medical treatment and was released from treatment approximately one year after the accident. The claimant then suffered a number of subsequent accidents – including claims for falling due to the “bad leg giving out.” The claimant underwent multiple surgical procedures to both knees and both shoulders and treatment to his cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine regions.

The Judge of Compensation decided that the claimant was totally disabled and ordered total disability compensation be paid by the employer at the time of the original accident. The Judge of Compensation acknowledged that the petitioner had sustained subsequent accidents, and the injuries ( for which the majority of treatment occurred after) but failed to parse out exactly what degree of disability was related to the subsequent incidents (Id. at page 13). The case was sent back to the Judge of Compensation by the Appellate Court for the Comp Judge to “articulate, with particularity, what effect the 1999 and 2000 accidents had on the petitioner’s physical and psychiatric well-being.”

The remand of this case will allow the Respondent employer to argue that the petitioner’s condition worsened by an intervening accident which was not “directly connected in a physical chain of physical causation with the compensable injury.” In Vassilatos the claimant re-injured himself slipping on “wet stairs” in his apartment building (for which he maintained a civil action).

Case: Vassilatos v. Mercer Wrecking Recycling Corporation, A-4952-4878-06T3 (App. Div. decided July 2 2008)(Judges Fuentes & Grall, unpublished as of blog date).

Immune Public Entities may still be allocated 'fault'

In the case of Bolz v. Bolz, a published opinion relapsed in May 2008, the Appellate Division examined the combined effect of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1 to 12-3; the Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Law (JTCL), N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-1 to -5; and the Comparative Negligence Act (CNA), N.J.S.A. 2A:15-5.1 to -5.17, when there is a collision between a private automobile and an automobile that is owned by a public entity and driven by a public employee. It was held that despite the fact that a public entity is not liable to pay damages unless plaintiff sustained a permanent injury as defined in the TCA, both drivers are deemed “tortfeasors” if they are found to have been negligent and their negligence was a proximate cause of the accident.

Therefore, allocation or apportionment of each driver’s negligence or fault must be assessed, even if there is a possibility that the public entity may not be liable for damages. Put a different way, although no damages can be awarded against a public entity or employee for pain and suffering if the injuries caused by an accident do not meet the threshold set by the TCA, the public employee is, nonetheless, a tortfeasor pursuant to JTCL and the CNA and this affects the judgment against the private tortfeasor.

Homeowners not liable for injuries to independent contractors

In Whitten v. Sybron Chemicals, Inc., the defendant Sybron hired the plaintiff’s employer to perform maintenance on chemical manufacturing tanks. The plaintiff, a foreman, was injured in a fall from a ladder while repairing a piece of machinery inside one of defendant’s sludge tanks. He claimed the fall was caused by sludge the defendant’s employees failed to clean. However, he admitted he knew of the slippery condition. The court held that since the plaintiff worked for an independent contractor, and since the presence of the sludge was a known and visible hazard that was incidental to the very work the plaintiff was to perform, the defendant had no duty to ensure the plaintiff’s safety. This holding falls in step with a line of New Jersey case law that abrogates the general rule that landowners have a nondelegable duty to ensure the safety of all who enter onto the premises. It thus becomes important upon receiving notice of an accident to thoroughly investigate precisely how the injury occurred and under what circumstances.

Negligent inflection of emotional distress not subject to 'verbal threshold'

In a decision released June 10, 2008, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim, fashioned on the liability set out in Portee v. Jaffee, is independent of the requirements imposed by the Automobile Insurance Cost Recovery Act’s verbal threshold. The Court in Jablonowska v. Suther, determined that the New Jersey Legislature provided no indication in drafting AICRA that it intended to superimpose the permanent injury requirement on Portee claims that happen to involve the use of a motor vehicle. Accordingly, when asserting a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress in motor vehicle cases, plaintiffs will not have to submit objective medical evidence of a permanent psychological injury. Nor will they have to file a certification of permanency from a physician.

Bill to cap damages pending

On June 11, 2008, the Assembly Judiciary Committee took up a bill that Deputy Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union) has been pushing for three legislative sessions to cap punitive damage awards in cases where several defendants are determined to share responsibility for a harm.

In such cases, as soon as one defendant reaches a punitive-damages settlement with the plaintiff, that agreed-upon figure will be used to calculate a ceiling on the punitive damages the other defendants may be assessed. For example, should a defendant judged 20 percent liable for a harm agree to pay the plaintiff $100,000 in punitive damages, then the maximum punitive damages the plaintiff could receive would be $500,000, and no defendant would be liable for more than the share of that $500,000 corresponding to his or her comparative liability.

TMWB is monitoring the progress of this important piece of legislation.

Defending Employers