The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled favorably in a workers’ compensation case for Ocmulgee EMC, a client of Hall Booth Smith partners Fred Hubbs and David Dix.
The high court decided that when an employee aggravates a prior injury while at a new job, the employer can suspend benefits without a court order when a doctor determines that the employee has returned to his “baseline condition” before the new injury occurs.
The employer isn’t obligated to find a job within the company for a worker before terminating benefits simply because aggravation of a prior injury has ended, the court ruled.
Before this ruling, there hadn’t been a case in which the court determined that if an employee still has restrictions, and had them before, a new employer isn’t responsible for them, according to Hubbs, who has practiced for more than two decades and is head of HBS’s workers’ compensation practice and also serves as Chair of the USLAW Workers Compensation Group.
The case sets an important precedent with a growing aging workforce and prohibitions on employers screening prospective employees on pre-existing medical conditions, according to Dix and Hubbs.
Ocmulgee EMC had asked the court to review the case after it terminated an employee for providing false information on his job application when he stated he was physically able to perform his job duties. The employee didn’t disclose a permanent sedentary work restriction dating to 2002 when he suffered a knee injury while employed at another company, which required three surgeries.
A panel of three appellate court judges had previously found that Ocmulgee EMC couldn’t terminate the employee’s benefits when the aggravation of the pre-existing injury ended without first “proving that suitable work was available” for the employee.
That appellate ruling was a surprise, as Georgia statute concerning re-aggravation of pre-existing conditions doesn’t address an employer’s responsibility to first prove that suitable work is available, Hubbs said.
The difference in this case is that the employee had returned to a baseline condition, and there wasn’t a continuing disability, according to Hubbs.
Notably, the high court denied a request by the terminated employee’s counsel to review what constitutes a “baseline condition” prior to re-injury of a pre-existing condition.