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A Tangled Web to Weave: Worker Comp Risks in the Cotton Industry

Many people, who spent a career in the textile industry, have also worked at many different locations. The manufacturing economy has been nowhere near predictable for the (still) important American textile industry. Occasionally, this economic upheaval has meant workers also traveled from state to state to find work. Many mill workers, with decades of experience behind them, also may have contracted an airborne or breathing illness, or related disease. And for many of them, this exposure often begins much earlier than in their final position. Explaining these threads, skeins and tangles needs to be left in the hands of an experienced workers compensation attorney.

II. Winding and Spinning A Life History

Mrs. Rutledge was born in 1935, and like most Americans of the day had actually been smoking cigarettes since a youngster…in her case, from when she was 15. She smoked about one pack a day, and during the course of her career in textiles, worked at four different mills. Most of that time was spent in South Carolina, where she worked from 1953 until ‘71, as a weaver. Her next career stop was for two years, again in South Carolina, as a dry cleaner. She made the move to North Carolina, where she worked in the industry from 1975 to 1979-- first as a weaver and then completing her career as a winder and a spinner. Bronchitis, too, was beginning to take a toll on her health. She was off work for five months in that final period alone, owing to major breathing issues. Because of her declining health, she retired, at the age of 44.

Mrs. R. had developed a host of health issues. She had chronic pulmonary disease, also emphysema and bronchitis. Her medical rating was “fully disabled.” The debate was going to reflect the many reasons for that total disability.

Her worker’s compensation attorney began to argue that while the weaving and spinning areas were fairly clean, she later testified always worked with a “lot of cotton dust and lint.” Crucially, the worker’s compensation attorney’s research identified her health problems may have actually begun as early as 1969: that’s when she first noticed her cough being “associated with her presence at work.” Notably, it’s very common for people not to recall off the top of their heads these important pieces of medical qua legal evidence. Talking extensively with a qualified workers compensation attorney helps tie these loose threads and memories together in a meaningful way. This level of detail can be especially challenging when bringing out complicating health issues, involving workplace particulates, with a regular smoker.

III.  Blends, Airborne Particulates, Lifestyles As Major Issues

Many employers would like to put real, workplace-related breathing injuries “up in smoke,” whenever cigarette smoking is involved. A North Carolina worker’s compensation attorney deals with any number of complicating factors involving lifestyle choices. They also know that, over time, medical evidence may be obscured by lifestyle choices such as smoking. This is especially true in certain industries that have a long history in North Carolina; people in these careers may tend to be older workers, and have usually been heavy smokers at one time. None of this should be taken as a reason not to consult with a qualified North Carolina worker’s compensation attorney. In fact, many people try to take too much blame on themselves.

The key to the case was probably the workers compensation attorney’s excellent use of using medical evidence to explain workplace impacts. After developing a 25-year history of cotton dust exposure by Mrs. R., the worker’s compensation attorney was able to specify exacting questions about her disability: notice how it’s done…

Q. Do you have an opinion satisfactory to yourself to a reasonable medical certainty as to whether parentheses her) exposure to cotton dust… Was probably a cause of her chronic obstructive lung disease which you diagnosed?

  1. Yes. 

Q. What is that opinion?

A. Yes. That it probably was a cause.

IV.  Personal Memory As Evidence: Details Make the Difference

As vital as expert medical evidence typically is, an expert worker’s compensation attorney realizes the crucial nature of personal testimony by someone who has been injured at work. In this case, Mrs. Rutledge’s own words were not only emotionally compelling: they were legally pivotal.

She described when she had her first early memories of breathing difficulties. She was asked by the worker’s compensation attorney what the consequences of this breathing difficulty were. This allowed her to go into better detail, describing that it specifically made her fatigued at work and eventually unable to continue. But this was only enough to prove injury: next, the workers compensation attorney needed medical testimony (such as given above) to prove her disability was also causation.

The workers compensation attorney also introduced, successfully, evidence that there were improvements to air quality in the mills. At the same time, this was evidence of airborne particles, that could be related to showing causation (besides smoking). An experienced worker’s compensation attorney is aware of the fact that while this is a conclusion, there are often even more personal details behind it. Accordingly, working with a worker’s compensation attorney who has experience in these investigations often leads to crucial details being recalled; details, which would otherwise be forgotten.

In this case, as noted above, Mrs. R. was reminded that she actually described specific consequences of the difficulty of breathing. She went on to answer the workers compensation attorney to describe her cold sweats and headaches.  She had stiffness to her neck because she coughed so hard, She had muscle spasms from her coughing. None of this was introduced by medical records. It was developed by an experienced workers compensation attorney based on knowing his client’s real, life story.

The worker’s compensation attorney in this case also did something else that was very helpful to this case. He established evidence that while she was interested in another job in the industry, there was specific medical evidence that she lost 25 to 30% of her lung function in the two-year period before retirement. This was a key element in establishing where (which employer) the final liability should be placed in terms of her permanent disability. A common defense is to try and “pass the buck” as to which employer, was where the injury occurred. It didn’t work in this case, thanks to the workers compensation attorney.


Ultimately, the Supreme Court had agreed with two crucial arguments by the worker’s compensation attorney. The first was that the disability did not have to be entirely placed on the workplace, in order for the worker to be protected by worker’s compensation. This meant that the cigarette smoking was not a bar to her recovery. Secondly, the worker’s compensation attorney established that Mrs. R.’s last injurious exposure was at work, and not because of her cigarette smoking. The fact that she quit smoking was a vitally important factor in marking the timeline of her disability.

The human equation of these cases are important to worker’s compensation attorneys. In this case, Mrs. Rutledge gave some of the most compelling testimony: “I was unable to perform my duties on my job. From tiredness.… I felt I was not being fair to myself or the company. I did not just quit, I was advised by my doctor… to quit.” She had not wanted to end her work. She did not want to be disabled. Having an experienced workers compensation attorney on your side, to properly show the human side of things, means an advocate who doesn’t quit fighting for you. If you, your loved one or other close friend—have questions involving workers compensation insurance claims, your legal rights with State hearings or employer duties, please contact us.  You will speak with an expert in worker compensation insurance, who can best answer your questions about how your claim, treatment, or injuries may be best addressed.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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