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Wrong Standard Applied in Massachusetts Art Teacher’s Workers’ Comp Case

The Massachusetts Reviewing Board recently reviewed Christine Cannava v. City of Medford, an appeal by a fifty-nine year old retired art teacher. The art teacher claimed she hurt her right shoulder and tore her rotator cuff in the fall of 2009, while reaching overhead to remove drawings and paintings from a drying rack and replacing them with the day’s artwork, as well as while operating a paper cutter and keeping her arm elevated to demonstrate painting and drawing techniques at an easel.

When her claim was denied, the art teacher appealed. An impartial doctor examined her. The self-insurer did not believe there was a causal relationship between the actions the art teacher pinpointed and the right shoulder injury. After the doctor was deposed and a hearing was held, the judge allowed the art teacher and the self-insurer to submit further medical evidence on the grounds that the causality claimed was complex and required the weighing of multiple medical opinions.

Ultimately, the judge found the self-insurer was not responsible for paying the art teacher’s claim and denied and dismissed the claims. He said that the impartial examiner had found the art teacher’s right shoulder contained pre-existing deterioration. He also noted that the art teacher didn’t report that her shoulder problem was caused by her work to anyone at the school, nor at her first visit with a doctor. Instead the art teacher finished up her physical therapy in six to eight weeks and worked the rest of the year without seeking more treatment, before retiring. When she retired she said that the injuries were not the cause of the retirement.

The judge found that although the work might have exacerbated the condition slightly, he did not find it “more likely than not” that the repetitive activities noted by the art teacher were a major cause of her shoulder injury and torn rotator cuff. Under Massachusetts worker’s compensation rules, when a compensable injury is combined with a pre-existing condition that is not compensable, the injury or disease that results may only be compensated to the extent that the compensable portion of it remains a major cause of the disability. The art teacher appealed on the grounds that this heightened causation standard should not have been applied.

On appeal, she argued that the judge should have used an “as is” standard rather than a “major cause” standard raised by the insurer. The reviewing board explained that if the insurer’s defense under a “major cause” standard were to be applied, the judge would have to use the analysis set forth in Vieira v. D’Agostino Assocs, a 2005 worker’s comp case. The art teacher’s case would not meet the first first prong of the Vieira test.

The impartial doctor had stated that the art teacher’s pre-existing condition was chronic tendonitis of the shoulder with an impingement syndrome related to her age. While the judge acknowledged this, he did not acknowledge that these findings meant that the “as is” causation standard should have been used. Pre-existing conditions that can be attributed to “age related deterioration” are not enough to satisfy an insurer’s burden of production to use the “major cause” standard.

The reviewing board concluded that the judge’s findings related to the art teacher’s credibility were bound up with his finding that liability could not be established because the impartial doctor opined that her work was not a major cause of her incapacity. The reviewing board sent the case back to the judge in order to making separate findings on causation and credibility.

If you have suffered an injury in the workplace, we can help you resolve the legal issues that arise in this context so that you can rest and recover. If you are concerned about your employer’s workers’ compensation coverage, ask the experienced Massachusetts worker’s compensation attorneysat Kantrovitz & Associates what you should do. Call us at 617-367-0880 or contact us via our online form.

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