In Elec. Gen. Corp v. Labonte, 454 Md. 113 (2017), the Court of Appeals held, in a case of first impression, that a subsequent intervening event occurring outside of a Claimant’s employment does not, per se, preclude the liability of the Employer for worsening of the prior workplace injury. The Court of Appeals also held that the doctrines of the law of the case and collateral estoppel do not apply to decisions of the Workers’ Compensation Commission as Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-736 gives the Commission the power to revisit and revise any prior order within five (5) years of an Order.
In Labonte, the Claimant suffered a compensable workplace injury to his back on September 2, 2004. For this injury, Claimant received medical treatment and out of work benefits. On December 31, 2016, the Claimant re-injured his back during an altercation with a police officer. As a result of this the Claimant sought further temporary total disability benefits and alleged that his disability remained causally related to the September 2, 2004, accident. A hearing was held and on March 30, 2007, the Workers’ Compensation Commission denied Claimant’s requested additional disability benefits on the grounds that Claimant suffered a subsequent intervening event that this event broke the chain of causation. No appeal was filed from this decision.
The Claimant then filed Issues seeking permanent partial disability benefits. A hearing was held and on October 15, 2007, the Workers’ Compensation Commission found that the Claimant had sustained a 20% permanent partial disability as a result of the September 2, 2004, accident and a further 10% permanent partial disability as a result of pre-existing and subsequent conditions. The Claimant had also sought payment of medical bills which were denied due to the subsequent intervening accident.
In 2012, the Claimant filed a Petition to Reopen his claim on the grounds that his back condition had worsened. The Commission granted Claimant’s Petition to Reopen, but in a January 24, 2013, Order, it denied his claim of worsening, ruling that the Commission’s prior finding that Claimant suffered a subsequent intervening injury to his back had severed the causal nexus between Claimant’s compensable workplace injury and his current back condition.
The Claimant appealed this decision to the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County. After the Employer and Insurer’s Motion for Summary Judgment was denied, the case was submitted to the jury and the jury found that “100%” of the Claimant’s worsening of his back condition was causally related to his September 2, 2004, accidental injury.
On appeal to the Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals, the Employer and Insurer argued that since no appeal was filed in response to the Commission’s denial of temporary disability benefits based on Claimant’s subsequent intervening event, that the doctrines of the law of the case and collateral estoppel precluded a finding that Claimant’s worsening of permanent partial disability was causally related to his workplace injury. The Court of Appeals disagreed and held that neither doctrine was applicable to Orders of the Workers’ Compensation Commission on the grounds that Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-736 gives the Commission the power to revisit and revise any prior Order within five (5) years of the Order.
The Employer and Insurer also argued that a subsequent intervening injury breaks the chain of causation between a compensable work injury and the Claimant’s current condition as a matter of law. The Court, however, held that while temporary disability benefits are awarded based on the most recent injury and apportionment does not apply, permanency awards are subject to apportionment for both pre-existing and subsequent injuries. The Court further held that there was sufficient evidence on the record to support a jury finding that Claimant’s worsening of condition was solely caused by his workplace injury.
As a result of Labonte, Maryland workers’ compensation defense practitioners need to be aware that a subsequent injury to the same or similar body part to one that is part of a claim will not in and of itself break the chain of causation from the prior workplace injury. Accordingly, attorneys should be prepared to not only argue that the subsequent injury was sufficient to break the chain of causation, but also be prepared to argue for apportionment as well. Practitioners should further be aware that the doctrines of collateral estoppel and “law of the case” are not applicable to decisions of the Workers’ Compensation Commission within the five-year reopening period. However, at the same time, this decision also permits Employers and Insurers to argue for reconsideration and/or increase of apportionment findings when a Claimant reopens a case and seeks additional permanency benefits.