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Goodwin v. National Grid: Prior Condition Not Grounds for Denial of Workers’ Comp

Our Boston workers’ compensation attorneys know that one of the reasons some workers may hesitate to file a claim is that they figure an injury stemming from a pre-existing condition essentially makes them ineligible for benefits.
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This is not true.

Of course, you can’t get workers’ comp for a totally-unrelated injury. But if your pre-existing condition has been exacerbated or aggravated by an incident at work, you absolutely may qualify for benefits.

That was the issue before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Goodwin v. National Grid.

The plaintiff was a 55-year-old laborer who had worked for his entire career as a pipefitter at this company and those that came before it. His everyday duties involved intensive physical labor, so he was no stranger to daily aches and pains.

One day, in late December of 2008, the employee was working on an overhead pipe to fix a leak. In the midst of this, he felt the back of his neck pop, causing an extreme shock of pain to shoot down from his neck to his right arm. He had experienced brief bouts of pain before, he said, but this was different.

He went to the doctor soon after, where an MRI of his spine revealed he had extensive degenerative disc disease and multiple disc degeneration. The doctor diagnosed his most recent injury as aggravation of preexisting cervical spondylosis and cervical strain. The doctor found that the preexisting condition was responsible for 60 percent of his injury, while the work incident was responsible for 40 percent.

The worker underwent surgery and was once again cleared for full-time work little more than a year later.

When the workers’ compensation disability claim was heard before an administrative law judge, the judge found that the doctor actually used an improper legal standard in his 60-40 conclusion. Further, the judge decided that the doctor’s finding of 40 percent made it a significant enough factor to require the employer to cover the workers’ disability and treatment costs.

The company then appealed that decision to the reviewing board, which is the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. The firm argued that the administrative judge had not properly taken into account the doctor’s opinion on the cause of the worker’s injury and the fact that a preexisting condition was primarily to blame.

The court, however, sided with the worker, reasoning that the judge wasn’t under any obligation to adopt all of the doctor’s findings or opinions. The doctor had said he didn’t believe the work incident to be a “major cause” of the patient’s condition. But the law judge was well within his rights to determine that the doctor’s interpretation of “major,” in the legal sense, was incorrect.

Further, Massachusetts G.L. c. 152, 1(7A) holds that in cases where an employee is hurt but also has a preexisting condition, the worker has to show that the work injury or disease is a major – but not necessarily predominant – cause of the need for treatment or disability.

If you are injured on the job in Massachusetts, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your workers’ compensation claim– 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:
Goodwin v. National Grid, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Oct. 15, 2012, No. 11-P-2088
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