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Waitress with brain injury due workers comp

Waitress with brain injury due workers comp

A waitress who suffered a brain injury while breaking up a New Year's Eve bar fight is entitled to workers compensation benefits, the South Dakota Supreme Court has ruled.

Sarah Sorensen was working as a waitress for Harbor Bar in Watertown, South Dakota, on Dec. 31, 2009, when a fight broke out among customers at the bar, court records show.

Ms. Sorensen attempted to break up the fight, at which point her co-worker also intervened, removing a customer who was hitting Ms. Sorenson while she lay on the floor, according to records. She finished the remainder of her shift despite a headache, and “several people” noticed she was getting black eyes.

On Jan. 3, 2010, the workplace assault was reported to the Watertown Police Department, which took pictures of Ms. Sorensen's swollen face and two black eyes, records show. A detective interviewed witnesses, reviewed Harbor Bar's surveillance footage and arrested Ms. Sorensen's attacker.

About a week after the assault, Ms. Sorensen suffered an onset of severe headaches and vomiting, according to records. An MRI revealed a massive intraventricular hemorrhage in her brain.

She underwent a total of three surgeries, records show. The third surgery was performed after a physician discovered that Ms. Sorensen suffered from moyamoya, a vascular disease of the brain.

Her claim for workers comp benefits was denied by Harbor Bar, which alleged that her injuries were the result of a different incident, according to records. On Jan. 27, the detective was contacted by someone who said he witnessed Ms. Sorensen fall while roughhousing with her boyfriend and brother at Harbor Bar.

The man said he didn't see Ms. Sorensen hit the floor, but that she likely fell on her back and “could have hit her head,” records show. He also said he didn't remember when the alleged incident took place, but he later decided it was Jan. 4 — the day after the New Year's Eve assault was reported to the police.

In reviewing the bar's surveillance tapes, the detective said he didn't see Ms. Sorensen in the bar any night between the night of the assault and her admission to the hospital on Jan. 7, according to records. Though he only watched portions of each tape, the detective “believed (the witnesses) were encouraged to talk to him by (Harbor Bar), and their inability to agree upon a date hurt their credibility.”

The South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation decided the alleged second incident didn't take place after the Dec. 31 assault — “if it happened at all” — and awarded Ms. Sorensen expenses for medical bills and lost income, records show.

The department determined the third surgery was a result of Ms. Sorensen's moyamoya disease and not her workplace injury, but it still directed Harbor Bar to pay for it, according to records.

Harbor Bar appealed to the 6th Judicial Circuit Court in Pierre, South Dakota, records show. In July 2014, the court affirmed but remanded to the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation for clarification on which medical expenses were compensable.

According to records, the department reduced Ms. Sorensen's award and the circuit court issued a final order.

Harbor Bar appealed to the South Dakota Supreme Court, which unanimously affirmed the circuit court's ruling on Tuesday.

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