Medically Distinguishable Test Only Applies to Some Work Injuries

The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Rakestraw v General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. clarified whether a disability produced as a result of symptomatic aggravation of a pre-existing, non-work-related medical condition was compensable. The Supreme Court held the claimant must establish more than the aggravation of symptomatology from a pre-existing, non-work-related condition for that claim to be compensable based upon aggravation of that condition by work-related factors.

However, a few months ago the Michigan Court of Appeals held in the case of Simpson v Kevin Bordolla Construction & Concrete Supply, Inc. the Rakestraw analysis does not apply to cases where the pre-existing condition is by itself a work-related condition.

In 1979, Mr. Simpson, an iron worker, injured his left hand during the course of his employment. It remained untreated and continued to worsen while the plaintiff worked over the next two decades. On October 23, 2000, the plaintiff worked for Bordolla Construction & Concrete Supply, Inc. and was responsible for putting reinforcement rods into concrete. As part of his job, the plaintiff had to carry bundles of rods, which weighed between 100 and 150 pounds. While performing this work, his wrist bothered him but he was able to finish the one day job. The plaintiff did not return to work after that date.

The plaintiff’s treating physician diagnosed Mr. Simpson with a fracture of the lunate bone in the left wrist which was never repaired. It progressed to a dissolving necrosis of the bone. The physician stated that the plaintiff’s use of his hands and wrists as an iron worker following his initial fracture in 1979 increased the rate of bone destruction to the point where the condition precluded the plaintiff from using his wrist for most tasks of an iron worker. The defense expert attributed the plaintiff’s post-2000 disability to the initial fracture sustained in 1979.

The Court of Appeals held Mr. Simpson’s employer liable for aggravation of his injury even though he had only spent one day on the job.

After trial, Mr. Simpson was awarded benefits for his left-wrist injury, concluding Bordolla Construction & Concrete Supply, Inc. was responsible for payment of compensation as the last employer to employ the plaintiff in conditions that resulted in his disability. The magistrate stated the plaintiff’s activities while working accelerated the worsening of his wrist condition.

On appeal, Bordolla Construction & Concrete Supply, Inc. argued there was no evidence that Mr. Simpson suffered an injury on October 23, 2000 that was “medically distinguishable” from any pre-existing injury resulting from the 1979 fracture. The Workers’ Compensation Appellate Commission (WCAC) rejected their argument holding that Mr. Simpson’s wrist condition of 2000 was “medically distinguishable” from the broken bone suffered in 1979. They held the advance of necrotic bone that disabled the plaintiff as of October 23, 2000, was not the same condition suffered by the claimant in 1979.

The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the WCAC decision determining the facts in the case were legally distinguishable because in the Rakestraw case the pre-existing condition was clearly caused by non-work-related factors. In Simpson, the pre-existing condition was clearly a work-related injury. Therefore, the question is not whether a condition pre-existed the claimed injury, but whether the claimant had already sustained a work-related injury.

Thus, where a workers’ compensation claim stems from the aggravation or complication of a pre-existing, work-related injury, the case of Rakestraw, which addresses non-work-related injuries, is factually distinguishable and inapplicable to the determination of liability. The result is that judges cannot rely upon Rakestraw’s “medically distinguishable” test in determining whether an employer must provide compensation for the aggravation of an employee’s pre-existing, work-related injury.