Thursday, August 1, 2013

Another Lesson in Substantial Evidence

Judicial interpretation of workers compensation laws in general relies upon "substantial evidence."

This is a concept that is difficult for many employers/carriers/payers, etc. to grasp. A party may have "better" evidence, but that is not the standard by which the vast majority of workers' compensation awards are held to.

Substantial evidence simply means "good enough." Good enough to support whatever proposition the evidence is being used for.

The standard is whether someone can reasonably rely upon the evidence to support whatever the conclusion is that is being proffered.

In Missouri, an appellate court upheld an award of permanent total disability benefits to a factory worker based on substantial evidence that her work-related back injury, combined with her preexisting physical and psychological issues, left her unemployable, thus qualifying her for the state's Second Injury Fund contribution to a permanent total disability award.

In Sickmiller v. Timberland Forest Products Inc., Nos. SD32257, SD32277 & SD32291, 07/18/2013, published, Tammy L. Sickmiller hurt her back in September 2007 while lifting a wooden pallet in the course of her employment with Timberland Forest Products.

Sickmiller suffered from a preexisting depression, for which she received treatment in 2000. She also had a history of suicidal ideations that began when she lost custody of her children sometime between 2000 and 2001.

On top of that, Sickmiller had been treated for bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome as the result of a work-related injury she suffered when working in 1999 for a previous employer.

The Labor and Industrial Relations Commission found that Sickmiller's injury, combined with her preexisting physical and psychological disabilities, rendered her permanently and totally disabled.

Everyone appealed on various grounds, but for purposes of this discussion, Timberland contended that the Commission’s award to Sickmiller was not supported by substantial and competent evidence. The Second Injury Fund argued that the Commission should not have ordered it to pay Sickmiller's award since Sickmiller's inability to be employed was because of her worsening psychological condition, not her work-related accident.

Notice that Timberland argued that the evidence was a) not substantial and b) not competent.

We can eliminate the "not competent" argument - that's a dead loser. And with regards to substantial evidence, the standard is ... [go to top of column].

Well, the court reasoned that the testimony of the various medical experts – who almost unanimously opined that Sickmiller's work injury caused at least some additional psychological disability – combined with Sickmiller's testimony, constituted substantial, competent evidence supporting the Commission's implicit determination that the work injury was the prevailing factor in causing Sickmiller's total and permanent disability.

The court explained that the Commission was not required to consider Sickmiller's psychological condition as it existed at the time of the work injury in determining the Second Injury Fund's liability so long as Sickmiller's worsening psychological condition was attributable to the work injury, and substantial evidence indicated that it was.

So there you go - another lesson in the evidentiary standards in workers' compensation litigation. 

As to the overlay of personal, non-industrial psychological attributes to her physical status, that's for another column.

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