In an effort help our clients stay informed on legal issues affecting their business, Spicer Rudstrom’s attorneys strive to make sense of the complex challenges and recent legal developments in the ever-changing world of workers’ compensation law. Our attorneys summarize the cases handed down in the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board each week, providing insight on the recent legislation as a resource to employers across industries, as well as insurance providers and carriers.
Horace Wade Thomas v. Zipp Express
Tennessee Workers’ Comp. App. Bd.
August 2, 2016.
Employer Held Liable for Medical Benefits to Truck Driver Employee Due to Injury Sustained as a Result of Sleep Deprivation
In this case, a truck driver alleges that his employment caused him to suffer from sleep deprivation, which led to him having an episode of syncope (fainting) in which he fell and sustained a head laceration. The summary of facts in this case note that the driver’s employer required him to make multiple consecutive trips, and at one point, he was stuck in traffic for approximately 12 hours, during which time he had to remain awake. After this, he instructed his dispatcher that he was too tired to pick up another load and that he needed to stop, but he was instructed to pick up the load before stopping. After he stopped at a truck stop, he entered the truck stop to obtain drinks and food, and while inside, he passed out and struck his head.
He received emergency medical treatment and was diagnosed with syncope, uncontrolled diabetes and previously undiagnosed high blood pressure. The records from the treatment indicated that he had syncope, probably due to sleep loss, and there was a question if he had superimposed sleep apnea. Employee sought treatment for diabetes with his primary care physician, but there was no indication that he received additional treatment relating to the fall. The Employer obtained Dr. Garside to perform a record review and issue a causation opinion, and Dr. Garside stated that sleep deprivation is not consistently demonstrated in medical literature as a primary or secondary cause of syncope, and therefore, he opined that it is unlikely that the sleep deprivation alleged by Employee contributed more than 50 percent in causing the injury or syncope episode.
An expedited hearing was held, and the Court ordered Employer to provide a panel of physicians. Employer appealed. The Appeals Board explained that the trial judge has discretion to accept one expert’s opinion over that of another. Additionally, the Appeals Board noted that while Employee’s medical records do not establish causation by a preponderance of the evidence, when the records were considered in conjunction with Employee’s testimony, which the trial court found to be credible, the Appeals Board held that the combined evidence was sufficient to support the trial court’s order for a panel of physicians.
The Appeals Board further explained that “[a]n idiopathic injury is one that has an unexplained origin or cause, and generally does not arise out of employment unless ‘some condition of the employment presents a peculiar or additional hazard.’” The Appeals Board interpreted the trial court’s order to mean that Employee established a sufficient hazard which he was exposed to as a result of his employment (sleep deprivation) was causally related to his syncopal episode and injury.
Significantly, the Appeals Board did note, on more than one occasion, they could not hold that the trial court’s order determining that Employee came forward with sufficient evidence “at this stage of the proceedings” to support an order for medical benefits. Thus, it is likely that at a subsequent compensation hearing, Employee may need stronger medical evidence to support his claim.
Jared S. Renfroe is an attorney for Spicer Rudstrom PLLC. He focuses his legal practice on litigation throughout Tennessee. His concentrates primarily in premises liability, business and commercial representation, employment practices litigation, professional liability, insurance defense and workers’ compensation.