Other Possible Sinusitis Causes Put Brakes on Auto Worker's Occupational Disease Claim

                               

Lexington, KY (WorkersCompensation.com) – In Kentucky, an employee has a narrow path to establishing a compensable occupational disease. If she hopes to get her claim in gear, she must show that the exposure at issue could independently cause the disease. 

As one case shows, an employer can cast doubt on the independent cause issue by pointing to a lack of medical evidence, as well as evidence that other factors unrelated to work could have caused or helped cause the worker’s impairment. 

The auto worker in Wishman v. Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky, Inc., No. 2022-CA-1318-WC (Ky. Ct. App. 03/10/23), despite seeing multiple doctors for her sinusitis, never obtained a medical opinion that met the independent cause standard.

After years at the plant, she had to go on medical leave, she claimed, because of her sinusitis. She filed a workers’ compensation claim, asserting that a bacterium in coolant mist at the plant – Pseudomonas – caused her condition.

Independent Cause

For an employee to establish that she has an occupational disease for purposes of Kentucky’s Workers Compensation Act, there is no requirement to show that the exposure did in fact cause the disease. See Miller v. Tema Isenmann, Inc., 542 S.W.3d 265 (Ky. 2018). However, the worker must establish that the exposure could independently cause the disease.

This is where the worker’s claim failed, the court held. While her doctor opined that Pseudomonas could cause sinusitis, “he was unable to testify whether the levels detected in the machine mist at Toyota were of a sufficient quantity to independently do so,” the court wrote.

The court noted that doctor wrote that working at the plan "exacerbates” and is "associated with" the employee’s sinusitis. However, he did not state that her work at the plant could have independently caused her issues.

Further, the notes of the doctor who performed the employee’s sinus surgery stated that she developed sinusitis as a result of mold in her home. She also purportedly smoked for 20 years, the court stated.

“In short, there is an absence of proof in the record to support that the levels of Pseudomonas allegedly detected at Toyota could have independently caused Whisman's chronic sinusitis,” the court wrote.

The appellate court affirmed a ruling by the Workers' Compensation Board that the employee failed to establish a compensable occupational disease.

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