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Worker Awarded Occupational Disease Benefits for Asbestos Exposure

Debates over the latency period for developing asbestos-related lung disease reemerged in a recent case involving a union worker suffering from an occupational disease.  The claimant—a 74 year-old industrial worker employed by the Delaware City Refinery from 1982 to 2007—developed bilateral interstitial fibrosis from asbestos-related lung disease.  His employer is not contesting the diagnosis itself, but instead raising questions about the latency period and the worker’s risk from the “last injurious exposure,” as well as challenging the degree of permanent impairment.  The ruling on this highly complex workers’ compensation case may have significant implications for the guidelines used to determine disability benefits in future workers’ compensation claims involving asbestos exposure.

Under the care of Dr. Orn Eliasson, the worker was diagnosed with a 54% bilateral pulmonary impairment, which Dr. Eliasson determined using the 5th Edition AMA Guide.  Yet a second physician, Dr. Albert Rizzo, also attended to the same patient, and rated a 24% permanency based on the 6th Edition AMA Guide.

During his July 2010 hearing the claimant was no longer working.  His employers maintained that worker safety measures from 1986 should have provided him with adequate protection from asbestos exposure beyond that date—meaning, according to the logic of their argument—that the employee’s disability benefit quotient should have been based on his average weekly wage in 1986 for determining his present disability award.

The worker’s complicated employment history has made it difficult to determine all the factors involved in his asbestos exposure.  He was last employed by Catalytic in 1982.  The worker then moved to Raytheon, where he worked from 1984 until 1997.  After retiring from Raytheon, the claimant took a part-time position with Delaware City Refinery, Raytheon (from 1997 to 1998), and Washington Group (from 2000 to 2001).  The workers also performed services for several other companies for short spells between 2004 and 2007.

In 2008, the worker started to develop acute respiratory symptoms.  It was at this point that Dr. Eliasson initially diagnosed him with asbestos-related lung disease, and designated a 54% bilateral lung impairment rating based on the AMA Guide 5th edition.  Dr. Eliasson testified that there is a 10 to 20 year-latency period for developing asbestosis following exposure, and so in his medical opinion, the worker’s contributory exposure likely occurred between 1982 and 1997.  However, Dr. Albert Rizzo also examined the injured worker, and in a testimony on behalf of the various employers,  he argued that the harmful exposures were “most likely cumulative, making it difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint when the harm occurred.”   Drawing on the guidelines of the 6th Edition AMA Guide, Dr. Rizzo gave the patient’s bilateral lung impairment a 24% rating.

Ultimately, the Industrial Accident Board deferred to the prevailing doctrine of “the last injurious exposure rule” and upheld Dr. Eliasson’s testimony that the latency period for manifesting asbestos-related disease is 10-20 years.  The Board cited the 1988 case “Lake Forest School District v. DeLong” (WL 77665), arguing that when an injurious exposure is cumulative over the period of successive employment, the final employer is liable for the entire award.  In the case in question, the Board regarded the final year of the claimant’s fulltime employment (which fell between 1996 and 1997) as his last injurious exposure, and disregarded any asbestos exposure from 1997-2007 as outside the latency period.  Under these measures, Raytheon was found liable for the occupational illness.

When it calculated the worker’s award for permanent impairment, the Board declined to base its decision on the 5th Edition AMA Guide, and partially adopted Dr. Rizzo’s rating.  Using the 6th Edition, the Board determined that Dr. Rizzo’s rating corresponded with a Class 3 disability, which falls in the range between 24% to 40% impairment.  Yet the Board found Dr. Rizzo’s rating of 24% “low,” and awarded 30% to each lung.

If you think you may be suffering from asbestos exposure or another work-related injury or illness, please contact a workers’ compensation attorney at Emery Reddy.  We will fight to ensure that you receive the full workers’ compensation benefits to which you are entitled.

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