Under our Workers’ Compensation laws, an employee who gets a work-related injury or illness is normally eligible for benefits. What happens if the injury or disease aggravates a pre-existing injury?
Generally, if the work injury or occupational illness exacerbates an earlier medical impairment, the worker is still eligible for full medical, temporary disability and vocational benefits as if the previous condition had not existed. The exception is for permanent disability benefits or death benefits, in which case the disability or death payment amount may be adjusted to reflect the proportion of impairment attributable to the second injury.
A football example
A 2011 Maryland case involving a professional football player illustrated these concepts well. In Pro-Football, Inc. v. Tupa, the Court of Special Appeals found that a kicker who hurt his back when he “landed awkwardly” while warming up for a preseason game had a compensable, work-related injury, despite having a pre-existing diagnosis of chronic degenerative disc disease. The pre-existing condition did not prevent him from fulfilling his professional duties, while the second made kicking impossible.
The court said that “[a]lthough Tupa’s chronic condition would have continued to deteriorate absent the [later] injury, the jury needed only to find that the accidental injury contributed to the disability, not that it was the sole cause.”
Seek legal representation
It is important that a worker with a pre-existing injury or impairment worsened by a work injury or illness enlist the assistance of an experienced Workers’ Compensation attorney. It is often necessary to develop the medical evidence to show that the current injury — and not the older, aggravated condition — properly supports the claim. Cases involving pre-existing impairments can involve complex factual and legal issues, so a lawyer can make all the difference.