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An appeals court in Missouri on Tuesday granted permanent total disability to a woman whose already-fragile mental state due to earlier trauma in her life was compromised by a workplace injury that left her partially disabled.
The woman, described in court documents of having endured “significant psychological trauma as a victim of physical and sexual abuse and after her daughter’s rape and murder,” suffered an injury to her neck and head when a tool rack fell on her head while she worked on an assembly line, according to documents in No. ED107630, filed in the Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Division Two, in St. Louis.
The woman was taken to the emergency room following her 2012 accident, where a doctor diagnosed her with a head injury and neck pain, among other injuries. She returned to work after the accident, however she “struggled to keep up with the job demands,” documents state.
“Employer's plant was very noisy, which caused Claimant to suffer headaches and lose concentration. Claimant worked light duty for one week and worked one day of full duty before she was fired” and has not returned to work since, according to documents.
One month after her injury she filed a disability claim, which her employer eventually settled for $30,000, deeming her partially disabled. The settlement was approved by an administrative law judge in 2016, after which the judge in 2018 tried the remaining claim against the state fund for permanent and total disability benefits.
While the fund offered no testimony is disputing the claim, the woman offered in to evidence the deposition testimony of three medical experts, one of whom testified how the physical injury “exacerbated” her previous psychological injury and another who said her “preexisting (post-traumatic stress disorder) feeds on her post-accident PTSD.”
She also submitted the deposition testimony of a vocational rehabilitation expert who testified the woman “could not compete for employment from a psychiatric standpoint.” Also submitted were medical records and her own deposition and hearing testimony, in which she said frequent headaches made it difficult to work and that she developed dizziness and vertigo and slept more than 12 hours a day as a result, according to documents.
The judge, in denying her claim for permanent disability in 2018, concluded she did not "meet her burden of proving the nature and extent of any alleged preexisting psychological disability by a reasonable degree of certainty” and found that "other than testifying very briefly about leaving her job after her daughter's death, going to a therapist twice, and receiving Ambien and Xanax from her primary care doctor, Claimant did not testify about any actual symptoms prior to her work accident." The judge also ruled against the woman because she "failed to offer any specific testimony, either at hearing or in her deposition, regarding how or whether her alleged preexisting psychiatric conditions constituted a hindrance or obstacle to employment,” according to documents.
With one commissioner dissenting on account of “overwhelming weight of the evidence” proving an inability to work, the full state Workers Compensation Commission later affirmed on the same grounds.
Tuesday’s appellate ruling unanimously reversed, finding the fund liable for the woman’s permanent total disability, stating that she “met her burden” under state law “establishing (1) that her preexisting permanent disabilities were serious enough to constitute a hindrance or obstacle to her employment or reemployment,” among other reasons.
“The Commission's decision to the contrary is not supported by sufficient competent evidence and is against the overwhelming weight of the evidence,” the latest ruling stated.
A federal appeals court has punted the issue of whether morbid obesity per se is a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it may only be a matter of time before a federal circuit court says it is, many experts say.