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Disability resulting from Legionnaires’ Disease is compensable

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Legionella positive blood sample

A man who was disabled following a bout with Legionnaires’ Disease, which he said was caused by exposure to contaminated water while performing his job, is entitled to workers compensation indemnity and medical benefits, a Pennsylvania appellate court ruled.

Shawn Gallen was an employee of Glendale, California-based Nestle USA Inc. since 1994, primarily performing maintenance work on beverage machines. Mr. Gallen was based in the company’s Burlington, New Jersey, office but performed most of his work in Pennsylvania, court records show.

In June 2013, Mr. Gallen experienced flu-like systems and sought treatment at a hospital, where he fell into a coma and was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ Disease, a severe pneumonia caused by exposure to water containing the Legionella bacteria. He was transferred to in-patient rehabilitation treatment and ultimately released in September 2013. The illness affected Mr. Gallen’s speech and left him wheelchair-bound and unable to care for his basic daily functions without assistance. In addition, Mr. Gallen likely sustained a brain injury as a result of treatment he received for the disease, according to court documents.

Mr. Gallen filed a claim against Nestle in September 2013, saying he contracted Legionnaires’ Disease while working on fountain and soda drink machines that contained contaminated water. Nestle denied the allegations and said Mr. Gallen could not demonstrate that the disease was a result of work-related exposure, court records show.

A workers comp judge heard testimony from Mr. Gallen’s personal physician, family and friends, as well as occupational hygiene and medical experts supplied by the employer, and ruled that Mr. Gallen’s illness was likely caused by occupational exposure. The judge determined that Mr. Gallen was temporarily totally disabled and entitled to workers comp benefits, and the state’s Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed the judge’s decision, according to court documents.

Nestle appealed the decision in Nestle USA Inc./Vitality vs. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, saying the board erred in upholding the workers comp judge’s decision because it was not supported by substantial evidence, that the judge did not adequately explain the reasons for crediting Mr. Gallen’s witnesses over Nestle’s witnesses, and that the judge capriciously disregarded evidence.

A three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania unanimously upheld the workers comp judge’s decision, saying that Mr. Gallen’s treating physician gave unequivocal and competent testimony about the likely cause of Mr. Gallen’s illness, that the workers comp judge gave adequate reasons why he credited the testimony of Mr. Gallen’s personal physician over the testimony of experts provided by the company, and that the workers comp judge did not disregard competing evidence.

"We are disappointed by the court’s decision and are assessing our options for an appeal," a spokeswoman for Nestle said in an email to Business Insurance Wednesday. "While we sympathize with Mr. Gallen’s condition, we do not believe it was related to his employment with Nestlé Vitality."