Appellate Court Maintains Chain of Events Causation Principle in Aggravation of Pre-Existing Condition Case

Schroeder v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2017 IL App (4th) 160192WC

Semi Truck on Road

The Illinois Appellate Court maintained the long-standing chain of events causation principle in the case of a significant pre-existing condition in Schroeder v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2017 IL App (4th) 160192WC Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.

“A chain of events which demonstrates a previous condition of good health, an accident, and a subsequent injury resulting in disability may be sufficient circumstantial evidence to prove a causal nexus between the accident and the employee’s injury.”

International Harvester v. Industrial Commission, 93 Ill. 2d 59 (1982) Google Scholar.

In this case, the claimant was a truck driver who had previously required two lower back surgeries in 2009 and 2011, suffered from fibromyalgia, and received Social Security disability benefits. In January of 2013, her treating surgeon recommended a third back surgery that she declined.

Despite this history, she began driving a truck for the respondent employer in May of 2013 after passing a required physical examination.

In December of 2013, the claimant slipped on ice while making a delivery and fell on the right side of her back. She immediately sought medical treatment and has never returned to work as a truck driver.

The claimant’s medical treatment included a lower back fusion performed by her previously treating surgeon, who testified that she was getting along reasonably well until her accident and further that he performed a different surgery than the one recommended in January of 2013. He did testify that the imaging studies were not significantly different, however, his opinion was that the claimant’s accident aggravated her condition symptomatically, even though there were no objective radiological changes.

Relying on the independent medical examination by Dr. Babak Lami, an arbitrator of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission found that the claimant’s accident resulted in only a temporary aggravation of her pre-existing back condition and denied her claim for benefits.

The Commission reversed the arbitrator, noting that the claimant was able to work prior to the accident, but not after the accident, and that her pain had never subsided.

The Circuit Court reversed the Commission and this appeal to the Appellate Court followed.

The Appellate Court began its analysis by citing some of the most important principles in causation cases:

“A chain of events which demonstrates a previous condition of good health, an accident, and a subsequent injury resulting in disability may be sufficient circumstantial evidence to prove a causal nexus between the accident and the employee’s injury.” International Harvester v. Industrial Commission, 93 Ill. 2d 59 (1982) Google Scholar.

“Employers take their employees as they find them.” St. Elizabeth’s Hospital v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 371 Ill. App. 3d 882 (2007) Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.

“A preexisting condition does not prevent recovery under the [Illinois Workers’ Compensation] Act if that condition was aggravated or accelerated by the claimant’s employment.” Caterpillar Tractor Co. v. Industrial Comm’n, 92 Ill. 2d 30 (1982) Google Scholar.

Next, the Appellate Court rejected the employer’s argument that the chain of events theory can only be applied when a claimant is in good health:

Returning for a moment to the chain-of-events principle discussed above, we note that if we were to hold that it only applied where a claimant is in a condition of absolute good health, that holding would contradict years of Illinois precedent concerning preexisting conditions. As noted, an accident need only be a cause of a condition of ill-being for a claimant to recover under the Act . . . and correlatively, a preexisting condition will not prevent recovery. . . . Thus, that there was some preexisting condition with a separate cause is not relevant as long as the accident at issue was a cause of the claimant’s condition of ill-being. Prohibiting the Commission from drawing a factual inference about causation in the circumstances presented here would be akin to saying that the presence of a preexisting condition would defeat liability. Such a change in the law would have to be accomplished by legislative enactment.

The Appellate Court found that there was conflicting evidence in the record regarding the issue of causation and that “it was for the Commission to resolve such conflicts in the evidence.” In other words, the Commission’s decision was not against the manifest weight of the evidence (the relevant appellate standard for reviewing Commission factual findings).

In the end, the Commission’s decision in favor the claimant was reinstated.

Further Reading:

Sisbro, Inc. v. Industrial Commission, 207 Ill. 2d 193 (2003) (“Accidental injury need not be the sole causative factor, nor even the primary causative factor, as long as it was a causative factor in the resulting condition of ill-being.”) Google Scholar | Illinois Courts.

Shafer v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2011 IL App (4th) 100505WC (affirming causation finding based on chain of events theory) Google Scholar | Illinois Courts PDF.

This article does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney directly.