In Pennsylvania workers’ compensation, physical and mental injuries are treated very differently.  Is that fair?  Probably not, but that is the law with which we are left.

A physical injury, like a herniated disc in the neck or back, a rotator cuff tear in the shoulder or a ligament tear in a knee, are compensable under the PA Workers’ Compensation Act (Act), as long as the injured worker was within the scope and course of his or her employment at the time of the injury.  A mental injury, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression, on the other hand, must be due to “abnormal working conditions” to be compensable (unless resulting from a physical injury).

It is the interpretation of this phrase, “abnormal working conditions,” upon which such a case turns.  As the court decisions have taught us, that phrase is very fact specific.

We often have issues regarding whether a particular medical expense is payable by the workers’ compensation insurance carrier.  The issue could be whether it is a “medical” treatment at all, whether it is related to the work injury, or whether it is “reasonable or necessary.”  A recent case from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania examined a few of these issues.

In M.R. Schmidt v. Schmidt, Kirifides and Rassias, PC (Workers Compensation Appeal Board), the injured worker (Claimant) suffered an “aggravation of a preexisting degenerative disc disease at the levels of L4-5 and L5- S1 with radiculopathy” while he was loading files into a bag.  The injured worker litigated, and won, a Claim Petition to have this injury accepted as compensable.  Despite his injury, Claimant continued to work with the assistance of pain management.  In an effort to avoid increasing the amount of Oxycodone and/or OxyContin he was taking, the pain management physician prescribed cannabinoid (CBD) oil.  Since the dosages of the opioids has not been increased again, and Claimant has been able to avoid surgery, the use of CBD oil appears to have been successful.

The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (Act) requires that the insurance carrier pay for all reasonable and necessary medical treatment related to the work injury.  As such, Claimant provided the insurance carrier with the prescription for the CBD oil, as well as his out-of-pocket receipts.  The insurance carrier refused to reimburse these expenses, alleging that CBD oil is not a “pharmaceutical drug.”  As a result, Claimant filed a Petition for Penalties.

We are often asked why an injured worker in Pennsylvania needs an attorney.  “They know I got hurt on the job,” the injured worker might say, “Why would I need a lawyer?”  Well, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently issued a decision that demonstrates why every injured worker in PA should have an attorney protecting his or her rights.

In Keffer v. Colfax Corporation and Phoenix Insurance Company (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board) it appears the injured worker did everything his employer and the insurance carrier asked.  And, he lost all of his rights in the process.  This case is a very important lesson for every injured worker in Pennsylvania.

The injured worker in this case hurt his low back lifting a box of metal rods on December 18, 2014.  The insurance carrier issued a Notice of Temporary Compensation Payable (NTCP), accepting the injury as a “low back strain,” and the payment of workers’ compensation benefits began.  These benefits continued until the injured worker returned to full-duty work on March 9, 2015.  The insurance carrier then issued a Notice Stopping Temporary Compensation (NSTC) and a medical-only Notice of Compensation Payable (NCP) on March 12, 2015.

There are two situations when an employee hurt at work in Pennsylvania is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.  The first, which encompasses the vast majority of cases, is when the employee is “actually engaged in the furtherance of the [employer’s] business or affairs . . . .”  This is true whether the injury takes place on or off the premises of the employer.  On the other hand, the second is when the employee is not actually engaged in the furtherance of the employer’s business or affairs.  In that situation, the analysis is one based on a 1977 Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court case called Workmen’s Comp. Appeal Bd. (Slaugenhaupt) v. United States Steel Corp (and generally known as the “Slaugenhaupt test”).

Under the Slaugenhaupt test, the injured worker must prove that he or she “(1) is on a premises under the control of the employer; (2) is required by the nature of his employment to be on such premises; and (3) sustains an injury or injuries due to a condition of the premises or operation of the business.”  All three of these requirements must be met.  Parking lot cases (so, before or after work) are always fact-specific, given this analysis.

A recent case decided by the Commonwealth Court of PA addressed this issue.  In Lewis v. Lehigh Asphalt Paving & Construction Co. (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board), the employee felt some pain and weakness in his left calf and ankle while working.  He finished his shift and clocked out.   About 15 minutes after clocking out, he got into his work truck to go home.  As he pushed off his left foot to get into the truck, he felt a pop in his lower leg (which was the Achilles tendon tearing).  He sought medical care, and provided notice to his employer, that same day.

When an injured worker in Pennsylvania hurts his or her spine, there are many diagnostic tests that a doctor may prescribe.  Sometimes, the doctors do not fully explain what a test is, or what it may show.  We believe that an injured worker should be fully informed, whether as to the legal aspects of his or her case, or the medical aspects.  While we are certainly not doctors, and would never suggest or recommend treatment, if the doctor will not educate his or her patient, that responsibility can fall to us.  We believe our clients are best served by being fully informed about what is happening in their case, both medically and legally.

From our experience, the first thing a doctor does when seeing a patient for a work injury to the neck or back is get x-rays.  An x-ray will show bone, such as a fracture (including, potentially, a stress fracture), but will not visualize soft tissue, like discs, muscles, tendons or ligaments.  This would be to rule out the presence of a fracture (though, if a fracture is still suspected, a bone scan can be done to better analyze the presence or absence of a fracture).

If the injured worker has pain, numbness or tingling into one or both arms, or one or both legs, a doctor may suspect the presence of “radiculopathy” or “radiculitis”, meaning that a nerve is possibly being pinched or touched by another structure, either a bulging or herniated disc, or due to “stenosis,” a narrowing of the spine which can be degenerative (though stenosis can be “aggravated” by an injury at work).  To assess the discs, and degree of stenosis, doctors often prescribe an MRI, with or without contrast.  The results of the MRI may help the doctor determine whether surgery can help reduce the pressure on the nerve, to potentially relieve the radiating symptoms to the arm or leg.

You are hurt at work.  What do you do now?  Keep in mind that not every injury is a sudden event, like injuring your low back picking up a box or falling down steps at work.  Some injuries are harder to determine and understand, even for the person who is hurt.  Things like repetitive stress injuries, such as  carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis or bursitis, or chemical/smoke exposure, or even an illness, for example, COVID, can appear over a period of days or weeks.

Regardless of the type of injury, or how it happened, the first thing to do is report the injury.  I cannot tell you how many times a client has told us that he or she did not report an injury immediately because “I didn’t think it was anything serious.”  The fact is, all injuries should be reported immediately.  It is far better to report something and then learn it is nothing serious than to fail to do so, and then discover it is worse than you initially suspected.  A delayed reporting of an injury is often used by a workers’ compensation insurance insurer as a basis to deny the workers’ comp claim.  Don’t make this mistake!

Once you have reported the injury, attention turns toward getting medical treatment.  Many people think the employer, or the workers’ compensation insurer, controls what doctor the injured worker can see for a work injury.  The truth is the employer, or the workers’ comp insurer, can limit the treatment options for a maximum of 90 days (and even then, certain steps have to have been met).

Since the 1996 changes to the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (“Act”) took place, workers’ comp insurance carriers have had the ability to use Labor Market Surveys [LMS] (also known as Earning Power Assessments [EPA]) to reduce or stop the payment of workers’ compensation benefits.  We have previously addressed the “prerequisite” of showing no positions exist with the time of injury employer.

A recent case (albeit an unreported case) shows this reading of the law remains the state of the law in PA.  In Strzyzewski v. Extensis II, Inc. (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board), the time-of-injury employer could not be located, so (obviously) there was no determination that no job existed with that employer.  Instead, the vocational counselor hired by the workers’ comp insurer simply performed a LMS, and a Petition for Modification or Suspension was filed.

Ultimately, the Petition for Modification or Suspension was granted by the Workers’ Compensation Judge (“WCJ”), and the benefits of the injured worker were reduced.  The WCJ was not persuaded by the argument by the injured worker that the workers’ compensation insurance carrier could not obtain a LMS until they had established whether a suitable position was available with the time-of-injury employer.  The WCJ found that the vocational counselor made a “good faith effort” to locate the employer, and that was sufficient.

Under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, an injured worker has 120 days to provide notice of a work injury to his or her employer.  If notice is not given within this time, a Claim Petition may be barred.  The time period for giving notice can be extended where the work injury, or its relation to work, is not immediately apparent to the injured worker (“The Discovery Rule”).

Recently, in The Hershey Company v. Woodhouse (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board), the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania looked at what constitutes sufficient “notice” to meet the legal requirement.  Here, the injured worker had a history of diabetic neuropathy and had developed a right diabetic foot ulcer in June of 2017. On November 6, 2017, the injured worker passed out at work and was taken to a hospital.  Subsequently, the injured worker sent an e-mail to his employer that he had emergency foot surgery.  A below-the-knee amputation was performed on the right leg.  The e-mail did not mention any relation to work.

On December 1, 2019, Claimant filed a Claim Petition, alleging that “he suffered a work injury on November 6, 2017, consisting of an aggravation of a diabetic foot ulcer and a below-the-knee amputation of his right leg.”

When a person is injured at work in Pennsylvania, and the injury is not accepted by the workers’ compensation insurance carrier, the injured worker must file a Claim Petition to seek benefits.  Once the Claim Petition is filed, the insurance carrier has 20 days to file an Answer, responding to the allegations of the Claim Petition.  If the workers’ comp insurance company does not file an Answer within those 20 days, the injured worker can file what is (informally) called a “Yellow Freight Motion.”

If this Motion is granted, all well-pled facts in the Claim Petition are deemed admitted.  The appellate courts in PA have told us that this Motion is not the same as a default judgement.  Ongoing disability can still be challenged by the insurance carrier, and proofs by the injured worker can be required by the WCJ.

A recent case decided by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, Hollis v. C&R Laundry Services LLC (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board), addressed what constitutes a “well-pled fact” when it comes to the description of injury.  Here, the employee was a truck driver who was involved in a motor vehicle accident while working.  When the injury was denied, a Claim Petition was filed.  The injury was alleged to be “left rotator cuff pathology/cervical left side radiculopathy, [Cervical, Thoracic, Lumbar] sprain/strain.”

To prevail in a PA workers’ compensation case, typically the successful party presents the testimony of a medical expert, whose opinion is accepted by a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ).  This expert opinion must be “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.”  What is encompassed by those words is a bit of an art.

A recent case from Commonwealth Court of PA, UPMC Pinnacle Hospitals v. Renee Orlandi (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board) [albeit an unreported case], touched on this issue, which may be of some interest to our readers.  When we present the testimony of a medical expert, the opinion of that expert need not be to concrete one-hundred precent certainty.  Few things in medicine reach that level, as a practical matter.  Instead, the opinions must simply be to a “reasonable degree of medical certainty.”

Pennsylvania courts have specifically found that there are no “magic words” that must be uttered by a medical expert for the opinion of that expert to be competent and be a sufficient foundation for the WCJ to base findings.  A reviewing court, such as the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), or the Commonwealth Court of PA, cannot pick a sentence here or there from a medical deposition, out of context.  Instead, the appellate court must see if the testimony, as a whole, contains “a requisite level of certainty necessary to deem it unequivocal.”

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