June 29th, 2019 Guest Post – Meuser Law Office, P.A. “What is the Superseding Intervening Cause Defense in My Workers’ Compensation Case?”

The superseding intervening cause defense is one of the few defenses in Minnesota workers’ compensation law that can result in a complete bar to all benefits claimed that are attributable to the superseding event. The next natural question is, what is a superseding cause? Insurers argue that a wide range of activities constitute a superseding intervening cause, but that does not mean the court will agree. The central question to determine whether the event was a superseding intervening cause is, was the employee acting unreasonably when the event occurred? If the employee is deemed to have been acting unreasonably when the event occurred, the event will be deemed to be an independent cause of disability and the employee will lose all workers’ compensation benefits.

What? ‘Unreasonable’ is a pretty broad standard, what are some specific examples of how the court ruled in these cases?

In the following situations, the court ruled there WAS a superseding intervening cause, which cut off the employee’s benefits:

  • The employee sustained injuries to his left and right shoulder at work. He did not miss work following this injury and he did not have any physical restrictions. Subsequently, he sustained a right shoulder injury when he fell on the ice and a left shoulder injury when he fell off of a small step stool at home. Following the at-home injuries, the employee missed time from work and underwent shoulder surgery. Hendrickson v. Potlatch Corp., 43 W.C.D 212 (1990). 
  • The employee sustained a low back injury at work, which required two surgeries. After the second surgery, the employee was caught shoplifting on two occasions and was seen running away from the scene. After these shoplifting incidents, the employee sought additional treatment for the low back, including a spinal fusion. Winkelman v. Sandoz Nutrition (W.C.C.A. 1992).
  • The employee sustained a work injury in 1981. By 1987, the employee had nearly returned to “normal” until she was in a motor vehicle collision resulting in further disability. Austin v. Coca-Cola Bottling (W.C.C.A. 1991).
  • The employee sustained a work-related low back injury, which required surgery and the employee had ongoing problems. Eleven years later, the employee was playing softball in the snow and sustained another injury requiring surgery. Cummins v. Ryan Construction Co., 37 W.C.D (1984).
  • The employee sustained a work-related injury, underwent surgery, completed a retraining program and returned to employment. Subsequently, the employee was roller skating and sustained a non-work related injury to the same area of the back. Gaspers v. Minneapolis Electric Steel Castings, 290 N.W.2d 743 (Minn. 1979). 

In the following situations, the court ruled that there was NO superseding intervening cause, and therefore the employee’s benefits were payable/awarded:

  • The employee injured a knee in a badminton game and the cast applied to treat this non-work related injury aggravated his previous, work-related back injury. Eide v. Whirlpool Seeger Corp., 109 N.W.2d 47 (Minn. 1961).
  • The employee sustained a work-related injury to an arm. Subsequently, the employee moved a couch at home, which was outside of physical restrictions. The employee testified that the non-injured arm was used to move the couch away from the wall. Johnson v. Waseca Independent School District No. 829 (W.C.C.A. 2003). 
  • The employee sustained a work-related eye condition, which made him more vulnerable to re-injury. The employee subsequently walked into a door jamb at home and required surgery on his eye. Michlitsch v. Michlitsch Builders, Inc. (W.C.C.A. 2006).
  • The employee aggravated a previous work injury when the employee slipped and fell on ice outside of the home. Scholz v. LeBistro Café (W.C.C.A 2007). 

Now remember, context is important for each of the examples listed above. The court will not rule that every employee playing a game of badminton was acting reasonably at the time. Similarly, it will not rule that every fall off of a step ladder will constitute a superseding intervening cause. Much of the court’s determination on this issue depends on the employee’s medical history, the extent of previous treatment relating to the work injury, the employee’s physical restrictions, and the extent of the new injury and treatment.

The knowledgeable attorneys at Meuser Law Office, P.A. will be able to distinguish or analogize to the cases listed above, in addition to similar cases on the subject matter, to support your claim and fight to get you the benefits to which you are entitled.

The Legal Standard – in a Nutshell

The defense of superseding intervening cause is a defense that uses negligence principles. The court must determine whether the employee was acting unreasonably when the event occurred. If the employee is acting unreasonably when the event occurred, the event will be deemed an independent cause of disability and the employee can be denied benefits.

If the court determines that the employee was performing a normal activity of everyday life, the event will not constitute a superseding intervening cause. The Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals held that when a work injury creates a permanently weakened physical condition and the employee’s subsequent normal activities aggravates that underlying condition, the resulting medical treatment is compensable. The proper test to determine whether an incident is a superseding intervening cause is the substantial contributing cause test, not the “but for” test. In other words, it is not enough for the insurer to argue that but for Sally falling on the ice at home, she would not have needed back surgery. In this example, the insurer would have to show that Sally’s initial back injury at work was not a substantial contributing cause or factor for her present disability. It is also important to note that the burden of proof is on the employer to show that the work injury is not a substantial contributing cause or factor to the present disability in the context of this defense.

Don’t wait to get an attorney involved if you have a Minnesota workers’ compensation claim. The process can be complex and you want to be sure you receive the full benefits you are entitled. Contact Meuser Law Office, P.A. for a free no-obligation consultation and claim evaluation. At Meuser Law Office, P.A. we keep our clients informed of the process as well as what to expect each step of the way. Call us today at 1-877-746-5680.