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Lung disease not conclusively caused by workplace fire: Court

Fire extinguisher

A worker with lung disease failed to show that his illness was brought on by a workplace fire, a Nebraska appellate court held Tuesday.

In Pennington v. SpartanNash Co., a three-judge panel of the Nebraska Court of Appeals in Lincoln affirmed a Nebraska Workers Compensation Court dismissing the man’s request for workers compensation benefits.

Robert Pennington worked as a store manager for Grand Rapids, Michigan-based food distributor SpartanNash Co. On March 25, 2016, he said he noticed a small fire in an unused walk-in freezer. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and put out the flames in about 20 to 30 seconds. The local fire department responded to the fire, and Mr. Pennington testified that he was treated with oxygen but there is no documentation of this fact. He declined to go to the hospital and went back to work.

A few days later, Mr. Pennington fainted while stocking shelves at work and went to the emergency room, where he listed a number of preexisting conditions and symptoms but did not mention the workplace fire. He did complain of chest pains, shortness of breath and a headache. He later saw his primary care physician, where he mentioned the workplace fire and that he had inhaled a lot of smoke and extinguisher chemical. He was referred to a pulmonologist.

Later that year, he was diagnosed with nonspecific interstitial pneumonia; his physician testified that the condition does not have a clear cause. He was ordered to stop working and was put on oxygen.

His treating physician wrote a letter stating that his pneumonitis and symptoms were
“more likely than not” a result of the chemical and smoke exposure, and a second physician opined that his exposure on the day of the fire more likely than not resulted in his lung disease.

SpartanNash’s medical expert concluded that it could not state with medical certainty that the lung disease was related to the chemicals or dust Mr. Pennington inhaled.

The Nebraska Workers Compensation Court denied his request for benefits, holding that Mr. Pennington’s medical experts failed to establish workplace causation of his injuries, and noting that the nature of his lung injury was a subjective condition that “required a medical expert’s opinion to establish the nature of the injury and its causal nexus to the accident.”

Mr. Pennington appealed the decision, but the appellate court affirmed the workers comp court’s ruling. Although Mr. Pennington argued that the compensation court inaccurately applied state law on the sufficiency of his medical expert opinions, the appellate court disagreed, concluding that the court’s determination was based on factual findings and noting that Mr. Pennington’s experts failed to provide sufficient support for their opinions.

The appellate court also dismissed Mr. Pennington’s argument that the compensation court failed to properly analyze his medical evidence, finding that the court “engaged in a thorough review and exhaustive analysis of the medical evidence submitted” before concluding that his expert medical opinions were “unpersuasive.”



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