Employment Aggravation of A Preexisting Condition

By Dylan Bess

Ocmulgee EMC v. McDuffie, 
806 S.E.2d 546, October 16, 2017.
In this case, the Supreme Court of Georgia considered whether an employer must show the availability of suitable employment to justify suspension of workers’ compensation benefits after already establishing that an employee’s work-related aggravation to a preexisting condition has ceased to be the cause of the employee’s disability.

McDuffie had a preexisting right knee injury that he sustained on another job in 2002. His doctor gave him a 20 percent impairment rating and placed him on permanent sedentary restrictions with respect to that injury. McDuffie remained out of work from 2002 until 2007 when he was hired to work as a meter reader for EMC. In 2009, while on the job at EMC, he stepped in a hole and re-injured his right knee.
EMC accepted the claim, but when EMC realized McDuffie had not disclosed his preexisting knee problems, he was terminated. Later, in 2011, McDuffie’s doctors opined that he had returned to his pre-2009 injury status of sedentary restrictions and EMC suspended his weekly income benefits.

McDuffie filed for a hearing to request reinstatement of his benefits. The ALJ denied the request, finding that McDuffie’s restrictions were no different than those he was already under at the time he was hired by EMC. The Appellate Division accepted the ALJ’s findings, and the superior court affirmed the Appellate Division’s order. McDuffie then appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the finding that McDuffie had no restrictions other than the permanent sedentary work restrictions he was under when he was hired by EMC. However, the Court of Appeals concluded that the ALJ erred when she failed to make factual findings regarding whether EMC met its burden of proving that suitable work was available for McDuffie. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated the judgment in part and remanded the case for the additional findings.

The Supreme Court granted EMC’s petition for certiorari on the issue stated above. The Court reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that when an employee has a preexisting condition that limits his work capacity before the on-the-job injury, as soon as the effects of the on-the-job injury cease, the employer’s responsibility for workers’ compensation also ceases. The employer is not responsible for compensating the employee until the preexisting condition improves as well, nor is the employer responsible for showing that work exists suitable for an employee with that preexisting disability.

About the Author
Dylan Bess is an attorney in the Atlanta office of Morgan & Morgan. A graduate of the Georgia State University School of Law, his practice primarily focuses on Workers’ Compensation. Dylan is an active member of GTLA and currently serves on the Verdict Editorial Board.

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