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An appellate court in Colorado on Thursday affirmed the denial and dismissal of a claim filed by an engineer with a head injury who claimed the long-term consequences of his injury included a rare form of narcolepsy that his doctor said was “post-traumatic in origin.”
Joseph Yeutter was working as a controls engineer for Fort Collin, Colorado-based CBW Automation Inc. when in August 2012 he sustained “serious injuries in a work-related accident when he was struck in the head and shoulder and knocked to the ground by a robotic arm,” according to documents in Joseph Yeutter v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office of the State of Colorado; CBW Automation, Inc.; and Pinnacol Assurance, Respondents, filed in the Court of Appeals of Colorado, Division V., based in Denver.
Mr. Yeutter’s injuries included a skull fracture, near damage, a broken arm and fractures to both of his orbital sockets. He returned to work two weeks later, but within two months switched to another company.
More than a year after the incident, however, Mr. Yeutter’s physical injuries had “stopped hurting so much," but he reported that he felt fatigued. In July 2014, one of his treating physicians prescribed stimulants to help “get through the day,” and a subsequent sleep study revealed “sleep patterns consistent with narcolepsy… most likely post-traumatic in origin,” records state.
Another doctor then offered the opinion that the claimant "is seriously disabled as a result of his narcolepsy and other trauma related conditions, and his prognosis at this time is guarded,” records state.
In 2015, Mr. Yeutter was deemed to be at maximum medical improvement by his primary physician, who also determined he was suffering from "narcolepsy, hypersomnolence, probably related to traumatic brain injury, managed with stimulant medication." The doctor recommended that he "continue his current medications,” adding that Mr. Yeutter “could not work and should be off work indefinitely,” rating his permanent impairment at 67% of the whole person.
Meanwhile, three mental health and medical experts retained by CBW Automation disagreed with the doctor’s assessment, one of them testifying “that a second sleep study confirmed claimant's narcolepsy diagnosis” but that the doctor “was skeptical that it was work-related because available medical literature had not demonstrated a causative connection between head trauma and narcolepsy,” records state.
The employer accepted his permanent partial disability based on a 39% whole person impairment rating but denied permanent total disability and maintenance medical benefits.
At hearings before an administrative law judge, CBW Automation and Mr. Yeutter offered contradictory evidence.
A vocational consultant testified on claimant's behalf, offering the opinion that although claimant had no work restrictions “from a physical standpoint,” she agreed with one doctor’s opinion that Mr. Yeutter’s issues with "wakefulness, the capacity to be productive day in and day out and what would be necessary pharmacologically" for him to maintain employment, made him incapable "of returning to work at this time."
In contrast, CBW Automation retained a vocational rehabilitation counselor who offered the opinion that claimant "is able to work and earn a wage” citing Mr. Yeutter’s “computer adeptness, mechanical engineering experience, and military background as transferable skills upon which claimant could draw to find gainful employment” and identified a dozen occupations that matched his abilities.
The employer also introduced the opinions of two additional independent medical examiners to support its position that claimant was neither permanently totally disabled nor required ongoing maintenance medical care, records state.
After two days of hearings, and “the admission of hundreds of pages of medical records,” the administrative law judge found that Mr. Yeutter failed to demonstrate that it was "more probably true than not that his narcolepsy was caused by his… industrial accident while working for employer” and that the "bulk of the medical evidence supports (the) determination that claimant has the ability to earn wages in some capacity." On appeal, a panel affirmed this ruling “because substantial evidence supported the (administrative law judge's) factual findings on these issues,” records state.
On Thursday, the appellate court cited state law in its affirming of the panel’s decision, determining “a claimant is permanently and totally disabled, and therefore entitled to (permanent total disability) compensation, if he or she is unable to earn any wages in the same or other employment.”
The plaintiff’s attorney, Scott Eley, of Eley Law Firm LLC in Denver, wrote in an email to Business Insurance that the “decision puts injured workers in the precarious position of having to reprove the cause of their injury even after it has already been determined by an independent physician.”
The company and other attorneys involved could not immediately be reached for comment.
Nevada lawmakers are now considering a bill that would put the onus on employers to prove a work injury is not compensable, instead of existing law that put the responsibility at the hands of an injured party who has to prove the injury arose within the scope of employment.