Harrisburg, PA (WorkersCompensation.com) – A change in uniforms might have seemed like it caused an allergic reaction to a flight attendant, but the medical evidence didn’t sway a court into agreeing.
Instead, in upholding a workers’ compensation judge’s decision in the employer airline’s favor, the court in Sneddon v. American Airlines Inc., No. 278 C.D. 2020 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 02/04/21, unpublished) found that the evidence suggested that the flight attendant’s rash, fatigue, and welts could have been caused by something else.
New Uniforms, New Hives
The flight attendant began “to notice itching on his neck and chest, fatigue, and a little bit of memory loss” after an airline-required change in uniforms.
Allegedly, the new uniforms caused the flight attendant to be “more fatigued than usual” and led to a “chemical burn” with hives, welts, and a rash that spread to his neck, chest, and waist. Due to these issues, the flight attendant took a voluntary leave of absence, during which time his symptoms improved but didn’t completely disappear.
When the flight attendant returned to work, he wore his previous uniform but continued to experience symptoms when in direct contact with coworkers who wore the new uniform. The flight attendant stopped working and sought treatment from a dermatologist.
One of the doctors treating the flight attendant advised him to avoid laundry products with a certain chemical as well as textiles treated with certain dyes. This doctor recommended that the flight attendant remain out of work.
Another doctor opined that the flight attendant’s reaction was due to chemicals that weren’t in the uniforms, and skin patch testing ruled out the uniform as the cause of the flight attendant’s symptoms.
Based on the evidence, the WCJ determined that the flight attendant didn’t make a strong enough connection between the uniforms and the reaction he experienced. The WCJ pointed out that the flight attendant didn’t experience an immediate reaction to the new uniform and admitted that he experienced similar medical problems when he wasn’t at work.
The flight attended appealed to Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, which agreed with the WCJ. Thus, the flight attendant sought review in court, arguing that the WCJ didn’t properly consider evidence connecting his reaction to the new uniform.
Symptoms Outside Work
Under Pennsylvania law, WCJs are the “sole arbiter of fact” and have the authority “to accept or reject, in whole or in part, … any witness, including medical witnesses.”
In upholding the WCJ’s decision and the board’s affirmation of it, the court pointed out the delay on the flight attendant’s part in attributing symptoms to his new uniform and how long it took for him to seek medical treatment for the symptoms.
In the court’s view, this meant that the flight attendant didn’t experience an immediate reaction upon exposure to the new uniform. The court also pointed out that the flight attendant experienced medical problems when he wasn’t exposed to the uniform.
Although one of the doctors attributed the flight attendant’s issues to the new uniform, the court explained that it was the WCJ’s job to decide which medical expert presented the more credible evidence.
“The WCJ … determined that [the flight attendant’s doctor] did not possess the proper qualifications to perform a toxicology assessment,” the court wrote. “While it is true … that [this doctor] was [the flight attendant’s] treating physician, the WCJ was not required to accept [the doctor’s] opinion on that basis alone.”
Instead, the court noted that the WCJ reached her conclusion through “credibility determinations … based on substantial competent evidence.”