In an Illinois work injury case, one of the more complicated things that can happen is for there to be, before a case resolves, a second accident (or intervening accident) that is not work related—such as a car accident completely outside of work—which may or may not aggravate injuries, and create new injury concerns. One recent case provides an example of this workers’ comp case headache.
In Latasha Steele, Appellant, v. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission et al. (Binny’s Beverage Depot, Appellees):
- Ms. Steele worked as a cashier, and also had to stock shelves.
- On June 28, 2010, while on the job, she slipped and fell on a wet floor.
- She hired a workers’ comp attorney, and filed a claim on July 9, 2010.
- Injuries included: Low back, left leg, left knee, neck, and face.
- A MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the lumbar and cervical spine on July 2, 2010 showed a herniated disc at L5-S1. She was also diagnosed with: a cervical strain, lumbar strain with sacroiliitis and SI displacement, and left knee contusion with patellofemoral syndrome.
- Steele received some injections to treat her pain, along with physical therapy.
- One of the doctors noted her pain was at a 0/10, and that she was at MMI (maximum medical improvement).
- She returned to work on August 23, 2010.
- Ms. Steele went back to one of her treating doctors, complaining of reaggravation of her low back pain, as well as bilateral buttock pain radiating down into her legs.
- She received yet another epidural injection at L5-S1 of her spine on December 22, 2010.
- On January 6, 2011, she returned to her doctor, who noted she was doing better, but still experienced pain at a 6 out of 10. Her doctor noted she should be able to return to “more full time type of work within two weeks” if she continued to improve.
- On January 18, 2011, she was in a non-work-related car accident in which her car was rear-ended by another vehicle.
On April 29, 2011, the insurance carrier sent Ms. Steele to an Independent Medical Exam (IME). The IME doctor later testified regarding this exam at an evidence deposition. At deposition, the IME doctor gave the opinion that:
- The work accident was not a cause or a contributing factor to treatment needs after the car accident.
- Ms. Steele’s condition changed significantly after the car accident, and she had been “functionally back in the workplace” before the car accident.
- A November 1, 2011 MRI which showed no changes to her spine (compared to an MRI prior to the car accident) was not evidence that the car accident had no effect on her spine.
Countering the IME doctor’s position:
- Ms. Steele’s treating doctor interpreted that same November 1, 2011 MRI as evidence that the car accident did not change her condition, and so continued to treat her issues as related to her work accident.
- Records refuted the IME doctor’s testimony that Ms. Steele had been “functionally back in the workplace” before the car accident, because actually, at the time of the car accident, she was not working. Even though one of her doctors believed she might be able to return to work if she continued to improve, she had not yet returned to work at the time.
On January 22, 2013, the arbitrator found that Ms. Steele’s low back condition was related to her original work accident, and he awarded temporary total disability (TTD), medical bill payments, and prospective medical care recommended by Ms. Steele’s doctor. The arbitrator denied the claimant’s request for penalties and attorney fees.
On January 15, 2014, the Commission modified the decision of the arbitrator based on the argument that the car accident broke the chain of causation; in other words, it broke the connection between Ms. Steele’s current condition and her original work injury, such that the car accident allegedly may have been to blame for her current medical problems. Therefore, the Commission changed the award to only include medical bills incurred through to the day prior to the car accident, and it cut off the temporary total disability (TTD) benefits as of the day of the car accident.
On October 28, 2014, the Circuit Court of Cook County confirmed the decision of the Commission.
On February 11, 2016, the Appellate Court reversed most of the decision of the Circuit Court, with the exception of agreeing with the denial of penalties and attorney fees. It changed the award back to what the arbitrator first ruled in favor of the injured worker, providing for TTD benefits and medical bills after the car accident, which, in the view of the Appellate Court, did not break the chain of causation, based on careful review of the records.
Points to take from this case:
- Even though a second accident or “intervening accident” creates issues in a workers’ comp case, it is still possible to win in favor of the injured worker.
- Having an attorney is extremely important in a workers’ compensation case in Illinois. This case would have been nearly impossible for Ms. Steele to win on her own, or “pro se.”
- Even with an attorney, a case can sometimes take a very long time. This one was filed in July of 2010, and finally concluded in February of 2016.