What Do You Think: Did School Custodian Show Link Between Accident and Injury?

Frank Ferreri

Richmond, VA (WorkersCompensation.com) – When a doctor’s report casts doubt on whether an injured worker’s reports of pain match up with her injury, should that medical evidence sink the worker’s claim for benefits?

That was the question a Virginia court recently tackled when a school custodian sought treatment following an injury at work.

The custodian experienced a neck, left shoulder, and right shoulder strain from a workplace accident. By agreement, the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission entered a stipulated order awarding the custodian a lifetime medical award and a period of temporary total disability benefits.

Shortly after the injury, the custodian received treatment from a doctor, who prescribed “work hardening” for the custodian and issued work restrictions that included:

  • A lifting, pushing, and pulling weight limit of 25 pounds.
  • No weed whacking.
  • No using floor buffers or stripper machines.
  • No pushing the lawn mower.

With these restrictions, the custodian returned to work for the district in a light-duty capacity. Nonetheless, she continued to experience pain and reported that she could not do continuous vacuuming or sweeping and that any activity that required strength increased her pain.

After additional treatment, the doctor maintained the custodian’s restrictions and opined that she had reached maximum medical improvement. The doctor attributed her continuing pain to the workplace injury.

The custodian was examined by the district’s doctor, who opined that the custodian’s complaints of pain did not appear to match the extent of her physical injuries. According to this doctor, there were “no objective findings” to preclude the custodian from returning to her job.

On the custodian’s claim for temporary total disability benefits, a deputy commissioner found that she carried her burden of proof, and the WCC affirmed. The district appealed to court, arguing that the custodian didn’t establish a connection between her injuries and the workplace accident.

Under Virginia law, a finding of causation doesn’t have to be based exclusively on medical evidence, and claimants don’t have to produce a physician’s medical opinion in order to establish causation. Instead, a court can find that a workplace accident caused an injury through direct or circumstantial evidence based on testimony.

Did the custodian present enough evidence to establish a workplace injury?

  1. Yes. The custodian saw multiple doctors, and one determined that she had reached MMI and opined that her continuing pain resulted from her workplace injury.
  2. No. The district’s doctor’s report questioning the custodian’s pain was enough to defeat her claim for benefits.

If you thought A was the better option, you agreed with the court in Loudon County Public Schools v. Hernandez, No. 0870-20-04 (Va. Ct. App. 01/12/21), which upheld the WCC’s ruling in the custodian’s favor. The court reasoned that there was enough evidence to uphold the WCC’s finding that the injury was related to the workplace accident.

“[The custodian] noted that she has had continuing bilateral shoulder pain since her injury,” the court wrote. “While that pain has never abated, she testified that it was significantly exacerbated when she attempted to return to her job with [the district], even in a light-duty capacity.”

Other evidence that the court highlighted included the custodian’s reports that she experienced reduced strength in her arms and a general inability to complete the light-duty work requirements.

Thus, the WCC’s decision in the custodian’s favor stood.

This feature does not provide legal advice.

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