Allocating fault when Plaintiff has pre-existing conditions and is involved in two accidents

Stippich v. Reese’s Transit, Inc.

In this case, Plaintiff sustained injuries to his back and neck when he was involved in a motor vehicle accident arising out of and in the course of his employment with Defendant-Employer in October of 2014.  He immediately sought treatment and continued driving for Defendant-Employer on a limited basis due to his pain levels.  On January 11, 2015, Plaintiff notified Defendant-Employer that he could no longer work through his pain.  He agreed to continue his employment temporarily until a replacement was found.  On January 15, 2015, Plaintiff was involved in a second work-related motor vehicle accident.  Plaintiff did not return to work.

During hearing, Plaintiff testified his was not injured by the 2015 accident and that his pain never increased as a result of that accident.  Plaintiff’s testimony and the opinions of his physicians demonstrate that Plaintiff suffered from constant pain in his neck and back following the 2014 accident, and that those conditions “would still be continuing today with or without” the 2015 accident.  The 2015 accident was low impact and Plaintiff did not seek treatment for any injuries on the date of the accident.  Furthermore, prior to the 2015 accident, Plaintiff notified Defendant-Employer he could no longer continue to work.  Finally, Plaintiff’s physicians testified the 2015 accident would not have caused the pain he reported going forward.  This evidence suggested all of Plaintiff’s conditions could be traced back to the 2014 accident and that his conditions were not caused by the 2015 accident.  Therefore, the Court affirmed the Full Commission’s finding that Plaintiff’s 2014 accident was an aggravation of a pre-existing condition and that the 2015 accident was not.

Defendant-Carrier also appealed the Full Commission’s ruling that Defendant-Carrier was solely responsible for Plaintiff’s medical treatment.  Defendant-Carrier argued the costs should be split between the two parties who were on the risk for each accident.  Defendant-Carrier cited Newcomb v. Greensboro Pipe Co., 196 N.C.App. 675, 677 S.E.2d 167 (2009), where the court found that liability should be split between two parties because a second accident aggravated an underlying condition.  The Court distinguished the facts of Newcomb from this case on the basis that Plaintiff did not require any new treatment following his second accident in this case.  All of the treatment Plaintiff received was due to his 2014 accident.  The Court suggested injury costs could have been split, if Plaintiff required treatment following the 2015 accident.

The final issue on appeal was whether Plaintiff was able to establish ongoing disability.  The Court of Appeals reversed the Full Commission’s finding of ongoing disability because Plaintiff was unable to satisfy the disability requirements of Hilliard and Russell.  Plaintiff was written out of work until he underwent recommended treatment and returned for a follow up.  He did not ever receive the recommended treatment and work restrictions were not addressed during his follow up visit.  The Court of Appeals found that such restrictions are not definitive enough to establish ongoing disability since no physician wrote Plaintiff out of work indefinitely pending receipt of the recommended treatment.  Furthermore, Plaintiff presented no evidence that he searched for work or that a search for work would be futile.  Therefore, the Court determined Plaintiff’s disability ended once he returned for follow up treatment.

“Practice Point”

When a claimant has a pre-existing condition, look to whether the accident caused him or her to seek any new treatment, or whether his/her complaints changed following the accident.  If the claimant required new treatment following the accident, then the accident likely aggravated a pre-existing condition, and could be found compensable.