The first time I met Joe, the situation looked pretty grim. His workers’ compensation claim had been denied, and we were meeting to discuss whether a successful appeal to common pleas court might be possible. He told me that he hurt his neck while lifting and prying on a section of an eight inch water pipe while trying to get it in position to connect it to another pipe. While straining to force the partially buried pipe up several inches, he felt something pop in his neck. He did not have any pain at the time, so he continued with his work, and didn’t say anything about the pop in his neck to his boss or his co-workers. He finished the shift, and worked the next day.
The next evening, he began to feel numbness in his chest and side. Soon after that, his legs felt weak and he was having trouble walking. He drove himself to an emergency room, thinking he was having a stroke. When tests at the local ER ruled out a stroke, he was transferred to a hospital in Toledo. Once in Toledo, more testing and a neurological evaluation revealed that a ruptured disc in his neck was causing pressure on his spinal cord. Emergency surgery relieved the pressure on his spinal cord. At this point, the medical emergency was over, but the legal problems were only beginning.
Because Joe had no symptoms other than the pop in his neck until about 24 hours later, he had not reported the incident to his employer or his coworkers. Because he thought he was having a stroke when he went to the emergency room, he had not told the doctors about being hurt at work. As a result, his doctors had been unable to provide medical reports supporting the claim when it was before the hearing officers at the Industrial Commission. To make matters worse, Joe’s employer had not offered medical insurance, and with his workers’ compensation claim denied, he was faced with a mountain of medical bills.
Joe struck me as honest, and I recalled medical testimony in a case I had handled several years earlier that spinal cord compression does not always result in immediate symptoms, so it seemed to make sense that the symptoms which developed in the twenty four to thirty six hours after the incident at work could be connected to that incident. I believed his story and agreed to pursue his appeal, but with no accident report and no history of a work injury in the initial medical records, it was not going to be easy.
Once in court, we learned through pretrial discovery the names of workers from another company who had been on the jobsite. In depositions of the other workers we were able to confirm the basic history Joe had given me as to what he was doing and who he was working with when he felt the pop in his neck. The next problem was that Joe’s neurosurgeon had previously been unwilling to say that his injury was work-related, because the initial records did not document the history of a work-place injury. Armed with evidence to corroborate Joe’s story, however, I was able to present that evidence to the doctor, and he eventually testified that the incident at work was the cause of the ruptured disc and the spinal cord compression.
Eighteen months after he got hurt, and a year after I first met him, a jury was unanimous in finding that Joe had sustained a cervical disc herniation in the course of and arising out of his employment, and that he was entitled to benefits under the workers’ compensation act. As a result of that verdict, there is no more mountain of medical bills, Joe has been compensated for his lost wages, and he is now pursuing vocational rehabilitation services, hoping to return to work.
There is no doubt that valid claims are sometimes denied by BWC and the Industrial Commission. It is important to remember that the denial of a claim by the Industrial Commission is not always the end of the matter. In many instances you have the right to have your case decided by a jury, and that can make all the difference.