Case Law: Injured Back From Sneezing Found Compensable
Demmon v. Network Affiliates, Inc, W.C. 4-843-249 (March 21, 2012)
The Claimant worked at production company which, incidentally, produces commercials for attorneys. While bending over to put a compact disk into her computer, she sneezed and felt a sharp pain in her back. She later discovered that she had suffered a back injury and had a ruptured disk. The insurance carrier denied liability, asserting that the Claimant had a pre-existing back injury that was aggravated by sneezing, which could have happened anywhere and was not an incident of her employment.
The Claimant’s expert, Dr. Jack Rook, testified that the Claimant did indeed have a pre-existing back condition and that sneezing while putting in the CD in a bent over position, caused the disk to rupture. Both sides appeared to argue the “special hazard” doctrine. However, the ALJ ruled in the Claimant’s favor based on a finding that the sneeze brought on the Claimant’s injury with the help of her being bent over to put in the CD. The link between the job and the injury was sufficient to find the disk rupture compensable. The special hazard doctrine was not a factor.
Still, since the parties brought it up, the ICAO explained the doctrine which is that a pre-existing idiopathic disease or condition which is not caused by the employment, can combine with a special hazard at work and result in a compensable work-related injury. The most common examples are the worker who loses consciousness at work for reasons unrelated to employment and then hits his head on a concrete floor. Since concrete floors are common, the injury is not compensable. This is contrasted with an employee who has an epileptic seizure while working on a scaffold. While the seizure had nothing to do with his employment, the scaffolding, which is not common everywhere, combined with the seizure to make the worker’s resulting fall compensable. Ramsdell v. Industrial Commission, 705 P.2d 6 (Colo. App. 1985)
But this was not a case of a special hazard, since there’s nothing particularly hazardous about putting a CD into a computer. This case turned on the ALJ’s finding that the duties of the job combined with a pre-existing condition to cause the Claimant’s injury. The ICAO mentions a previous case where it upheld a finding of compensability when a worker bent over to tie a shoelace and hurt his back. Chapa v. Mountain Meadows Nursing Center, W.C. No. 4-387-363 (October 7, 1999).
It is clear that the ICAO gave broad discretion to the ALJ to decide if there was a sufficient link between the injury and work. Had the ALJ found otherwise, his decision probably would have also been upheld on appeal. The fact that the Claimant’s expert said that the act of bending over helped cause the injury was, no doubt, n significant factor in the ALJ’s decision.