Statistics: Trials in New Jersey

The New Jersey State Bar Association Workers’ Compensation section hosted the annual ‘Workers’ Compensation Conference’ at the Borgata in Atlantic City on May 15th.

Chief Judge Calderone reported the following statistics to the crowd of Judges and attorneys:

  • In 2008, 47% of cases were closed by an ‘Order Approving Settlement’ pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-22 (‘Section22’).
  • In 2008, 32% of cases were closed by way of ‘Section 20 Lump-Sum Dismissal’ (N.J.S.A. 34:15-20).
  • In 2008, 20% of all filed cases were dismissed (for Lack of Prosecution, lack of jurisdiction, etc.)
  • In 2008, 2% of all cases were tried (reached Judgment).

Subsequent employer held liable for aggravation: the Singletary case

The date of manifestation (2006) clearly falls during the ‘self insured’ period. The last incident involving the cervical spine (2001) clearly falls into the period where AIG was ‘on the risk.’ (Also note the claimant received an award of 45% PPT with a credit of 30% for the prior 1992 cervical spine injury in 2003).

A trial on causation was held. The claimant’s neurosurgeon testified that “Singletary’s work duties from January 2002 forward aggravated and accelerated the underlying pathology at C4-5 resulting in her need for surgery.” The Doctor also testified that if the claimant had stopped working or taken a sedentary job after the 2001 accident, she probably would not have needed surgery.

The Judge of Compensation ruled that the work duties from 2002 onward had indeed worsened the claimant, and that WaWa (as a self insured) was responsible for her medical bills, compensation for time lost from work, and award of permanent disability.

The Appellate Panel affirmed the Judge’s decision, stating that there was credible medical evidence int he record to support the finding that the injuries were causally related to the petitioner’s work after 2002. The Panel specifically stated “this is not a case where the subsequent employment ‘merely cause[d] pain from pre-existant conditions to be manifested’ . . . rather, Singletary suffered additional [new] physical insult every day she worked at WaWa due to the heavy lifting and other stressful tasks required by the job.”

This decision has similar facts but reaches the exact opposite conclusion as the Court did in Zrno, discussed in my blog. What was the difference/ Two things: (1) First, the claimant in Singletary had an easier time showing a worsening because she was actually getting invasive surgical treatment where the claimant in Zrno was taking Tylenol every other week; and (2) the medical proofs in Singletary are so much more compelling. There is a big difference when a credible, treating neurosurgeon (like Dr. Dellasotta in the Singletary case) is on the stand providing an opinion of causation as opposed to hired experts (always the same ones, it seems) trotted out in the Zrno case.

Aggravation of prior disabling condition: new case law for the defense

Instead, the claimant alleged that his employment at Wegmans “aggravated” and worsened his pre-exitsing disability, which was actually related to the compensable workers’ compensation injury the claimant experienced while working for Wakefern. Wegmans, of course, argued that it was not responsible for any aggravation of the prior disabling condition caused by the prior employment.

The Judge of Compensation found that the new job ‘aggravated’ the injury from the prior employment, and because of that awarded the claimant disability benefits.

The Appellate Panel (Axelrod and Lihotz) disagreed.

This case is blog-worthy because the logic applied by the Appellate Court should be used in any case where an ‘aggravation’ is alleged against a subsequent employer.

First: the facts. Claimant Ivo Zrno accepted a settlement of 27.5% PPT for an April 13, 2000 back injury sustained while working for Wakefern. At the time of the accident, the claimant worked in a supermarket as a ‘selector’ for Wakefern. In April 2001 the claimant took a job with Wegmans, also a supermarket, as a selector for 40 hours per week. In 2004 Zrno filed worker compensation claims against Wegmans and a ‘re-opener’ claim against Wakefern (remember: he had already accepted about $25,000 to settle his case against Wakefern).

The claim against Wegman alleged that “occupational exposures” (no specific injury) caused “injury to his lumbar spine.” Wegmans filed an Answer denying any such injuries.

At Trial, Zrno testified that his back pain had worsened as a result of his subsequent employment with Wegmans and that his pain had gotten “stronger.” However, claimant admitted that his “treatment” consisted of taking Tylenol “approximately every other week for pain.” The claimant also testified that in terms of injuring himself at his new job “I cannot say I remember one day I injured myself or had something bad happen to me which I would remember . . . I cannot say that because I do not remember that.”

Following this testimony, Zrno presented his paid expert doctors who testifie dthat his condition was “much worse’ than before his job at Wegmans.

The Workers’ Comepnsation Judge awarded this claimant $24,027.00 (approximately 32$ PPt with a credit for the prior award of 27.5% PPT).

The Appellate Division, exercising its limited jurisdiction to redress judicial mistakes where a comp judge rules in a way “manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with competent relevant and reasonably credible evidence so as to offend the interests of justice.” [quoting the Supreme Court in Rova Farms Resort v. Investors, Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474 (1974) – the first time I have seen the App Div quote Rova to establish the standard of review in NJ –gl] overturned the ruling of the Judge of Compensation.

In short, the Appellate Panel relied on the ruling in Peterson v. Hermann Forwarding Co., 267 N.J. Super. 493 (App. Div. 1993) cert den. 135 N.J. 304 (1994). Finding that causation was the issue, the Panel stated: “although the work at Wegman’s may have caused more pain that the claimant would have felt if he just remained sedentary, ‘the subsequent employment was performed without the intervention of additional trauma or physical insult.'” The Panel found insufficient medical evidence of any trauma or physical insult to the claimant’s low back while working for Wegmans,

Allocation among several employers

When an employee is totally disabled as a result of a long string of employments which cumulatively injured him, New Jersey law holds that the employer last on the risk’ pays the full freight for the claimant’s award. This doctrine, known as the ‘Bond Doctrine’ after the Court’s decision establishing it in Bond v. Blue Ribbon Co., is a common sense approach to those cases where all of the employments probably contributed to the overall disability.

In Nolan v. Kleinknecht Electric Co., A-5347-03T3, decided April 17, 2009 (not yet published as I blog this) the petitioner was a union electrician who held a long list of employments. (As a brief aside – it always seems that it is union contractors that file these types of claims because they often have dozens of employers over the years, have no personal loyalty/affinity toward any of them, and the union hall keeps a track of the employers which facilitates filing post-retirement occuputional disability claims easy-gl). Following the fashion, and nearing retireent age, Nolan filed a claim against all of his prior employers alleging that his work duties left him no permanently and totally disabled.

Unlike the typical case, Nolan actually experienced and reported an actual specific injury to his left shoulder (in 1998) and filed a claim against AMP Electric in which he recovered about $25,000 (approximately 27.5% PPT).

Nolan went back to work. eventually working for Kleinknecht Electrical in 2000. In 2001, he was told his spine was compromised and required treatment to avoid permanent effects. In September 2001 the claimant began surgical treatment for disc herniations, and never returned to work.

At Trial, the claimant presented Dr. Martin Riss (a general practitioner) who opined that “although the petitioner’s work for Kleinknecht [the “last” employer] did not involve heavy lifting or construction work, it nonetheless contributed substantially to the deterioration of his back and to his ultimate disability.” Dr. Riss described the work as “the straw that broke the camels back.”

The Judge of Compensation believed Dr. Riss and apportioned all disability against Kleinknecht, despite the fact that the claimant had received prior medical treatment for his low back while working for previous employers. In essence, the Judge of Compensation relied solely on the ‘Bond Doctrine’ and found all of the petitioner’s alleged disability was the result of the last employment.

The Appellate Court found that the reliance on ‘Bond’ was a mistake. Instead, the Court stated that “in the context of a progressive condition, the final employer ‘can no longer be held subject to the entire risk f liability for total disability when it is established by competent evidence that there is previous measurable [which then may not be total] disability.'” The Appellate Court here is citing the rule in Levas v. Midway Sheet Metal, a case I discuss at lenght in my book.

The case was remanded for proceedings consistent with the Apellate Court’s findings.

‘Odd Lot’ Thrown Out in Thomas v. Board of Education

Illiteracy;
Inability to speak English;
Low intelligence;
Lack of formal education;
Low job skill transferability;
Lack of training.
Other.
‘Odd Lot’ claims have one other prerequisite: before the ‘Odd Lot’ doctrine can be triggered, the claimant’s disability relative to the work accident must be at least 75% of total. That is to say, the physical disability must be significantly (and nearly totally) disabling by itself. This reduces the opportunity for fraud and abuse by litigants who would “trump up” their alleged ‘personal handicaps.’ Also, in a state with a large illiterate/non-English-speaking worker population (New Jersey released ‘official’ state figures last week admitting to at least 500,000 undocumented foreign nationals living and working in New Jersey) the potential for abuse of the ‘Odd Lot’ provision is present.
In a March 4, 2009 decision, the Appellate Court found that the petitioner in Thomas v. Newark Board of Education had no grounds to appeal based on the Judge’s refusal to apply the ‘Odd Lot’ doctrine and find him totally disabled. In Thomas, the claimant alleged that all of his prior work experience was in heavy manual labor jobs and that he lacked job skills.
The Comp Judge refused to listen to that argument, and found the claimant only 22.5% disabled, and so the ‘Odd Lot’ doctrine was not applied.

Defending Employers