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‘Til Death Do They Pay, and Winning Workers Compensation

I. Worker's Compensation Law

Worker’s Compensation has often struggled in North Carolina to keep up with advances and improvements in other types of insurance. Knowing this sort of coverage “gap” exists can be a key to a Worker’s Compensation attorney winning a case for an injured worker, This is especially true for those workers who may be facing complicated diagnoses.

Among the common problems with proving a Worker’s Compensation injury, is the exception for all so-called ‘ordinary diseases’ of life. These so-called ordinary diseases are those conditions that can have the chances of having equal exposure to the general public, outside or beyond at work. A skilled workers compensation attorney recognizes the fact that these general, public exposure issues can obscure an unknown, or multiple diagnoses, of purely symptomatic or progressive diseases: especially…diseases, as opposed to obvious workplace physical traumas or job injuries.

On the other hand, an experienced workers compensation attorney certainly can help you identify conditions that have sudden onset, which an employer may seek to deny liability for. One example of a particular illness that was often job-related, but often had difficulty being separated from this general public exposure question was serum hepatitis.

II. Loss of Life and Sudden Illnesses: limited medical knowledge

Worker’s Compensation attorneys are often innovators in legal rights. In this case, where the worker actually soon died after exposure at work, the policy ramifications can be very important. Working with an experienced Worker’s Compensation attorney typically yields the best results, at least in terms of making sure that all legal options are properly balanced with medical investigation. The medical investigation stage cannot be underestimated, especially in cases where the certainty of the disease may be disputed by employer. Before the Hepatitis B vaccine became widespread (in the 1980s), there was resistance to diagnosing it as having been a workplace hazard. There was an important case in this regard, involving Mr. Booker’s death. A workers compensation attorney worked to secure Mr. Booker’s legacy, by appealing a denial of benefits. The case involved action against Duke Medical Center, which finally reached the Supreme Court of north carolina.

It would probably be an exaggeration to say that without a Worker’s Compensation attorney battling for coverage, that the law would never adopt medical awareness of new symptomatic diseases. On the other hand, is almost a certainty that without the advocacy of a Worker’s Compensation attorney, experienced in these new medical developments, greater delays to these injured workers would be far more common… or in this case, denying benefits for the surviving family of this medical worker.

III.   Dealing with an infectious diseases and Worker’s Compensation…

… have largely evolved since the 1970s. Keeping up with all these evolutions is why a workers comp attorney needs to be so well qualified in discrete disease cases.

Mr. Booker’s death occurred rapidly after infection. At that time, before the Hep B vaccine was available, exhibition of the disease could be rapid: from six weeks to six months. Mr. Booker actually exhibited severe symptoms of the disease only three or four days before initial diagnosis. Making the situation worse, before the workers compensation attorney won this case, North Carolina had a fairly limited definition of “occupational disease.” While the Worker’s Compensation attorney initially won an award for Mr. Booker, the Court of Appeals reversed, and found that it was impossible to tell whether or not Mr. Booker had contracted his serum hepatitis at work. Instead, the court of appeals leaned on another section of North Carolina Worker’s Compensation law: the “ordinary diseases” section mentioned above. That law specifically said that “any diseases… which are characteristic of and peculiar to a particular trade, occupational employment, but excluding all ordinary diseases of life to which the general public is equally exposed outside the employment.”

The Court of Appeals felt that it was impossible to tell the difference between serum hepatitis contracted at Mr. Booker’s work, or if he had received it, somehow, in the course of daily life.

IV. “We disagree.”

The Worker’s Compensation attorney got the Supreme Court to reverse the court of appeals. Unlike the court of appeals, the Supreme Court viewed the actual death of Mr. Booker has the key event as to which law to apply. This issue of conflicting laws had become the barrier to the claim. This was because there had been a change between the original, more restrictive North Carolina view of recovery for ‘unknown’ illnesses, and broader recovery.

As the Worker’s Compensation attorney pointed out, because of the rapid onset and death of Mr. Booker, that he had never filed an unemployment compensation claim. Thus, the Worker’s Compensation attorney successfully argued that it made no sense to apply Worker’s Compensation law, when the injured worker had not sought Worker’s Compensation protection. It was his surviving family, which was seeking death benefits, which should be viewed as source (and timing) of the legal claim.

The North Carolina Supreme Court was undoubtedly persuaded by the Worker’s Compensation attorney’s presentation of how other states also treated coverage differences between general insurance and Worker’s Compensation. In North Carolina, it has been a game of catch-up, in some ways. Unlike general insurance policies, which tend to be broader, NC worker’s compensation has tended to lag behind in terms of defining new illnesses or as the worker’s compensation attorney put it: “to keep pace with the development of new disabling exposures in the industrial process.” Finally, the Worker’s Compensation attorney was persuasive by showing that the Court of Appeals interpretation was inconsistent with the General Assembly’s goals of providing broader coverage for occupational diseases.

Conclusions:   

It’s easy to imagine, looking back at less sophisticated medical techniques, that there were thousands of cases of sudden onset disorders and diseases, improperly excluded from worker’s compensation. A well-qualified North Carolina Worker’s Compensation attorney understands that medical technology can confuse or clarify these cases. This kind of experience is a great asset to the injured worker…making it essential that experience of your Worker’s Compensation attorney reflects the ability to gets the injured worker’s case to the right medical experts.

If you, other co-workers or a loved one, have questions regarding persistent, multi-symptomatic workplace injuries, or where a death has occurred, speak with one of our experienced workers compensation attorneys. You will speak with a workers compensation attorney who can best answer your questions about how your cases may relate to each other.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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