Western States Fire Protection v. Olsen, No. 13CA1748 (Colo. App. March 27, 2014)
The Court of Appeals ruled that a claimant does not have to show a vehicle is defective to prove that he suffered an occupational disease by prolonged driving of the vehicle. The claimant asserted that he suffered an injury to his back from prolonged driving of a truck provided by the employer. Claimant worked for a company that installed and serviced fire alarms. As a NICET Level 3 fire life safety technician, the clamant drove to client’s locations in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming. The claimant began having problem in his back while driving the truck within 30 days of starting work for the company.
The claimant testified that the seat was warn and the suspension of the truck was rough. He complained to his employer. These complaints were verified by the respondents’ witnesses at hearing. Finally, on a day where the claimant had to drive about 400 miles, he experienced extreme pain in his back and, upon returning to his home, required his wife’s assistance to get out of the truck. Since that day, the claimant has been unable to work.
The respondents asserted on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to support the judge’s decision that the claimant was injured from driving the truck. However, the record contained more than enough evidence to support the judge’s finding that the truck caused the injury. Respondents argued that there was nothing shown to be defective or broken in the seat. But the Court of Appeals ruled that there is no requirement that a product or device that causes an occupational disease be found to be defective in order to prove causation.
An occupational disease differs from a traumatic injury in that it occurs over a period of time as a result of an exposure that is a natural incident of employment and not due to one event or trauma. It must be shown that the exposure did not occur equally outside of employment. The court ruled that there was substantial evidence linking the driving of the truck to the claimant’s injuries and that there was no evidence that he was equally exposed to this hazard outside of employment.
The court further stated that it no legal authority that required finding that the seat was defective, and that the respondents, while making that argument, produced no authority for their position. Indeed, a medical expert testifying on behalf of the claimant stated that even a properly functioning seat could cause the claimant’s injuries if it did not support the claimant and his body habitus.
The respondents then made the argument that based upon this decision, anyone driving a car for a couple of hours per day could get an occupational disease for which an employer would be liable. The Court dismissed this by saying that each case is decided on its own merits and that in this case, it was proven that this was the cause of the injury.
The author of this article was the claimant’s attorney in this matter. The idea that there was not substantial evidence in the record was completely without merit. After two half-day hearings, there was plenty of evidence to support the judge’s decision. Their alleged requirement that the seat has to
be proven defective is not supported by any statute or legal precedent. That would be similar to having to prove a hammer is defective in order to prove a wrist injury through prolonged hammering.
The respondents final argument, that en employer could be liable for an occupational injury if their employee drives for a few hours, was particularly desperate. This appeared to be an attempt to draw the Court’s attention away from the facts of the case and distract it with broad public policy arguments. The Court would have none of it. The argument was tantamount to saying that a claim for a herniated disk from lifting should be disallowed because it would expose employers to claims if their employees lift anything. A claimant has to prove that he was injured as a result of his work. In this case, the claimant proved it and was entitled to benefits.