In law school, one of the first concepts taught is the proverbial “eggshell” Plaintiff. The doctrine means that you take the victim (or in workers’ compensation cases, the employee) as you find him or her. In real world terms, some employees may be hired with absolutely no pre-existing problems while others may have a number of comorbidities that make them more susceptible to injury. However, the employee’s susceptibility to injury is not a defense to an otherwise compensable workers’ compensation claim.
The vast majority of workers’ compensation cases in Nebraska involve an employee with some extent of a pre-existing medical condition. However, the law is very clear: An injury, disability, or death that is solely the result of the normal progression of a preexisting condition or that is due to natural, idiopathic causes, although occurring while the employee is at work, is not compensable. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 48-151(4). Alternatively, if the work-related accident combines with, accelerates, or aggravates a pre-existing injury, the entire resulting disability is compensable. Heiliger v. Walters & Heiliger Electric, Inc., 236 Neb. 459, 461 N.W.2d 565 (1990).
Unlike some other states, Nebraska does not look for primary or secondary causes of an injury. Stated another way, if the employment was a “contributing factor” to the employee’s injury, the entire disability is compensable. Miner v. Robertson Home Furnishing, 239 Neb. 525, 531, 476 N.W.2d 854, 859 (1991). This is even true if the employee would not have been injured but for the pre-existing condition.
Because nearly every disputed case in Nebraska involves a pre-existing condition, it is not difficult to find cases from each of the six judges discussing the concept of aggravations. However, several recent decisions reveal an important factor that the judges routinely consider when deciding an aggravation case – honesty.
Often times, for whatever reason, an employee will misrepresent or significantly downplay the extent of his or her past medical conditions. For example, an employee with a work injury to his back may claim he’s never seen a doctor for his back prior to the work accident, only for that statement to be discredited by a neurosurgeon’s records from just weeks before the alleged accident. Alternatively, an employee may admit to prior ankle problems “years ago,” but her records show her ankle surgery occurred in the month before the work accident. It is abundantly clear that the workers’ compensation judges value when an employee is honest and forthcoming about his or her prior problems. In 2020, Judge Block specifically highlighted an employee’s honesty with his medical providers when deciding to award benefits for an aggravation to the employee’s back. Similarly, in 2022, Judge Stine awarded benefits to an injured employee who had been seeking medical treatment for his disputed knee claim just a few weeks before the alleged accident. In making that decision, Judge Stine highlighted that claimant was always forthright about his prior problems and how the accident made it worse.
Contrast these opinions with cases where employees aren’t forthright about their prior problems. In 2020, Judge Hoffert entered an Order of Dismissal in part because the employee was dishonest about her lack of prior back problems. He highlighted the voluminous records presented by the employer showing that the employee had been on a leave of absence for prior back problems right up until the day before her alleged accident. This evidence, he noted, was in stark contrast to the employee’s testimony on the stand.
While it may be somewhat obvious that judges value honesty from employees, these cases show the vital importance of securing employee’s prior medical records. When evaluating new cases, it’s important to pay attention to the parts of the medical records discussing an employee’s past problems or past medications. These portions of the treatment notes can be easily glanced over, but may contain information that sheds an important light on the employee’s prior medical history that he or she is unwilling to share voluntarily. Additionally, in cases where a recorded statement is taken, it’s necessary to ask the employee about his or her past medical problems. If an employee acknowledges a relevant past history, securing those records could be a major development in the case. While it’s true that employers take employees as they find them, to evaluate whether the eggshell plaintiff rule applies, one needs to know what “cracks in the shell” even existed before the accident.
If you have questions about a case involving an employee with a pre-existing condition, please contact any of the lawyers at CPW by phone or email. Want to ensure you don’t miss out on the next post in the CPW compendium series? Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.