Massachusetts Board Holds that Employee Suffered Industrial Injury Because She Showed Causal Relationship Between Asthma Condition and Exposure to Irritants at Workplace

The Massachusetts Reviewing Board recently analyzed a case involving an employee’s allegation that the judge had erred in determining that she had not proven her claim of disability based on exposure to irritants causing asthma.  The Board stated that an employee’s claim for workers’ compensation based on environmental conditions at work requires showing a causal relationship between the work conditions and the injuries sustained. In this case, the Board held the employee suffered an industrial accident while working, emphasizing that the judge adopted medical evidence that causally related her condition to her exposure to irritants at work.

Valerie Bonds worked for the Boston Public School Department, teaching from 1989 until October 20, 2011.  Respiratory distress caused her to leave her position. She worked in buildings that were dilapidated, with water damage, leaks, exposed water pipes, and poor soil quality. While Ms. Bonds did not have a history of asthma, she had smoked for 34 years, and she began having respiratory issues in 2008. Ms. Bonds found her breathing issues took place when she was working inside school buildings, but her symptoms dissipated when she left school for fresh air.  While Ms. Bonds temporarily left the school, she decided on October 20, 2011 that she could not return to work.

Ms. Bonds was diagnosed with rhinitis and work-related asthma.  The judge found that Ms. Bonds’ condition was aggravated, if not caused, by the school air quality.  But the judge denied and dismissed Ms. Bonds’ claim on the grounds that she had not presented persuasive evidence of her inability to work in the school buildings and that she had failed to prove she could not work at all. The judge cited the medical opinion that Ms. Bonds could work in an environment free of airborne irritants and factors increasing the growth of mold and water damage.

Ms. Bonds appealed on the basis that the judge had not decided the liability issue, had mischaracterized the medical evidence, had not considered whether she was partially disabled, and had failed to evaluate whether Ms. Bonds was entitled to medical benefits under § 30.

The Reviewing Board stated that the judge erred. While the judge did not find the employee suffered an industrial accident, she then stated she would not rule on the remaining issues.  On appeal, the Board made clear that the extent of an employee’s incapacity does not control on the issue of whether they are entitled to ongoing medical services.

Additionally, the Board stated the rule that whether an industrial injury takes place does not depend on whether the employee suffered a causally related disability.  An employee who makes a claim related to environmental conditions at work must show a causal relationship, based on a competent medical opinion, between the work conditions and the injury sustained.

Here, the Board stated that the judge had adopted medical evidence that causally related the employee’s condition to her exposure at the school where she worked.  This evidence was the medical opinion that Ms. Bonds’ condition was at least aggravated, if not caused, by the school’s air quality where she worked. Therefore, the Board stated, Ms. Bonds suffered an industrial accident in the course and scope of her work for her employer.

The Board also stated that on recommittal, the judge must consider actual vocational factors, such as age, education, transferable skills, and medical limitations, when determining the extent of Ms. Bonds’ work capacity. Ms. Bonds argued that the judge did not consider whether she was and is partially disabled, since the judge had not considered vocational factors when determining she could return to work in an irritant-free environment. The Board agreed, finding that the judge had looked at Ms. Bonds’ personal attributes, which are not considered to be a vocational factor.

In conclusion, the Board recommitted the case for further findings related to the date of the injury, the extent of the disability, and the employee’s incapacity for work based on vocational factors.

At Pulgini & Norton, an experienced Boston workers’ compensation attorney can provide legal guidance and strong advocacy on behalf of your right to compensation following a work-related injury.  We provide a free, confidential consultation with a dedicated workers’ compensation lawyer. Call our office today to discuss your claim at (781) 843-2200 or contact us online.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Appeals Court Reviews Worker’s Compensation Claim for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Blog, May 19, 2016

Massachusetts Appeals Court Finds for Worker Claiming Partial Incapacity Benefits, Massachusetts Workers’ Compensation Blog, August 12, 2015

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