Georgia Court of Appeals Decides Warehouse Worker Suffered a New Injury, Not a Change in Condition

red crane.jpgA recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision is a victory for all workers injured on the job. The Court reviewed and affirmed an administrative law judge’s (ALJ) decision to award new workers’ comp benefits to Larry Prather, a warehouse worker who got hurt twice at the same workplace in different positions.

Prather first hurt his back while operating a forklift for Evergreen, a milk and juice carton manufacturer, in 2002. Prather was temporarily unable to work and the manufacturer paid him temporary total disability benefits for a period of five weeks, plus medical treatment.

In 2005, after Prather returned to the job, he applied for a new position within the company, which was granted. His new position was as a plate-maker for Evergreen’s printing press. The new position required him to bend and lift.

Prather reported that his back pain worsened in the new position. The pain grew especially bad in his last two years of employment when Evergreen purchased a new plate table for his use. With the increased bending he had to do at the new plate table, Prather’s pre-existing back injury was aggravated. Numbness radiated down his leg into his foot.

In February 2010, Prather sought treatment. An MRI demonstrated that Prather had an increase in disk protrusion and stenosis. The MRI also revealed he had acquired an annular tear that wasn’t seen on an MRI from 2005. In July 2010, Prather was taken out of his job and he requested disability benefits for the new injuries revealed by the MRI.

To an administrative law judge and a superior court, Evergreen argued that the MRI simply showed a change in Prather’s condition from the 2002 injury. The ALJ found Prather was entitled to temporary total disability payments from March 2010, when he stopped working.

In appealing the decision, Evergreen argued Prather was barred by the statute of limitations relating to the first injury from receiving any benefits in 2010. The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected Evergreen’s argument, stating that the rule is: “[w]hether an employee’s inability to continue working has been caused by a new accident or a change in condition is a question of fact for the ALJ.”

In prior cases, a “change in condition” has been found where the claimant was injured and then went back to doing the same activity and through normal wear and tear, experienced a change in condition such that he could no longer work.

The court explained that there was at least “a scintilla of evidence” to support the ALJ’s finding that Prather suffered a new injury. The MRI showed Prather suffered a back injury that progressed over time. But although no specific traumatic accident befell him after his 2002 injury, Prather did have a wholly new tear. Additionally, his injuries worsened after he got the new plate-making position; the scope of his duties changed over time and so did his injury.

On November 13, 2012, the Georgia Court of Appeals held in Evergreen Packaging Inc. v. Prather that Prather was entitled to new benefits for a new injury. The court found that the plate-making work was not “normal” (meaning the same as the work he did when he first got injured). Prather’s condition was aggravated by this new work.

This is a great workers’ compensation ruling for workers in industries that involve higher risk of injuries. Although phrased conservatively, in effect it acknowledges that workers who are hurt twice should not be penalized for aggravation to pre-existing or new injuries while working in a different scope. If you were injured while at work, do not hesitate to discuss your workers’ compensation situation with a skilled and knowledgeable workers’ compensation attorney from The Law Offices of Nathaniel F. Hansford who will assess your situation and advise you how best to proceed.