HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Madison Academy won a victory in a state appeals court today in opposing full disability benefits to a former school custodian whose health problems were compounded by working around chemicals, leaving her unable to work.
The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reversed a Madison County Circuit Court ruling from February 2013 that awarded permanent disability benefits under Alabama’s workers compensation to Lisa Hanvey.
Tommy McMurtrie, Hanvey’s Huntsville-based attorney, said she is in a difficult situation.
“We are disappointed in the majority opinion which reversed the decision of Judge Smith, who heard the evidence,” he said. “This young lady became totally disabled after exposure to chemicals at work. According to experts she will never be able to work again. This once-independent lady is now totally dependent upon Social Security. We believe the workers’ compensation laws were enacted to protect injured workers like Ms. Hanvey.”
Ed Starnes, an attorney who represented Madison Academy, did not offer an immediate comment on the case.
The trial court found that she suffered a work-related injury from exposure to chemicals used for cleaning floors and stripping gym floor wax. The exposure aggravated an existing condition of myasthenia gravis, or MG, the trial court found. Myasthenia Gravis is an autoimmune, neuromuscular disorder that affects muscle function. There is no known cure, but early treatment can help control it, the court said.
A vocational training expert testified at the trial and found that Hanvey was “functionally illiterate” and unable to be retrained in a job that allow her to work despite her illness, the appeals court noted.
The trial court awarded Hanvey, who is in her mid-40s, $35,000 in accrued benefits, just over $50,000 in attorney fees and ordered the defendants to pay her $438.46 per week — her previous wage — less the 15 percent that covered the attorney fees, which is taken from the projected lifetime of the payments. So, under the order, Hanvey was to be paid $372.69 per week, for as long as she remained “permanently and totally disabled.”
Madison Academy appealed that ruling and the appeals court, in a 4-1 decision, today reversed Circuit Judge Jim Smith’s ruling. Judge Terry Moore wrote for the majority and was joined by judges Terri Willingham Thomas, Scott Donaldson and Craig Sorrell Pittman, presiding Judge William Thompson wrote a dissenting opinion.
The court’s dissenting opinion noted that Hanvey had been a janitor at the school for nearly five years before a floor refurbishing project was undertaken in 2011. The chemical exposure caused breathing problems and she was hospitalized three times in the summer and early fall of 2011.
In the appeals court’s majority opinion, the judges found that Hanvey’s problems were related to her illness, not her work.
“The employer does not dispute that the employee is unable to work, but it correctly observes that her permanent incapacity stems solely from her lingering and incurable MG, as established by undisputed evidence,” the opinion found. “By reviewing the record and determining that no substantial evidence supports a finding that the employee is permanently and totally disabled from the aggravation of the MG, as opposed to the MG itself, this court is not reweighing the evidence, or substituting its opinion for that of the trial court, but applying the law to the undisputed facts.”
The majority opinion also found that the trial court was not awarding compensation because “a preexisting condition has increased or prolonged the disability of the employee from her work-related exertion and chemical exposure,” but instead was applying the law of “medical causation,” which provides compensation “only for disabling injuries caused by the employment.”
The dissent argued that Hanvey had been able to perform her duties until the exposure to the chemicals cut short her work life.
“In this case, Hanvey’s exposure to chemicals rendered her MG symptomatic and prevented her from performing work that she was able to do before the exposure; that is, it accelerated her disease to the point at which her physicians determined she could never perform manual labor again, even though the MG was under control with medication,” the dissent argued. “Evidence also indicates that Hanvey is functionally illiterate and is not a suitable candidate for training for a desk job.”
The dissent argued under Alabama’s workers compensation law, “MA(Madison Academy) is responsible for providing Hanvey with workers’ compensation benefits for her permanent and total disability.”
The case was remanded back to the trial court to enter a judgment consistent with the appeals court opinon.