October 29, 2020

Lower Back Injuries & Workers’ Compensation

The plaintiff in The City of Chicago v. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission worked as a laborer for the City of Chicago’s sewer department. While pushing a wheelbarrow full of bricks in August 2002 he injured his lower back. After being diagnosed with a herniated disk at L4-L5, he underwent physical therapy and two microdisectomies. By July 2003, he had returned to work but still experienced daily pain and muscle spasms in his legs.

While his workers’ compensation was pending, a trench collapsed on him in May 2004. He then received steroid injections to treat nerve damage at L5. He was reassigned when he returned to work in May 2005, and his hourly pay rate was reduced from $29 to $17.

The plaintiff’s claims were consolidated and he was awarded permanent partial disability benefits (equal to 20% loss) for the first injury and then received $388 a week based on wage differential determination for the second injury. Because the city failed to pay a wage differential benefit from May 2005 to March 2006, the arbitrator awarded him penalties and attorney fees, stating that this delay was “vexatious” and “unreasonable”. The employer appealed to the IWCC—who affirmed the decisions—and then asked for review in the Cook County Circuit Court, which confirmed the decision.

Raising three issues, the city appealed to the appellate court (The City of Chicago v. The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, No. 1-09-2320WC.):

  1. Whether the commission erred in awarding benefits pursuant both to Section 8(d)(2) and Section 8(d)(1) for the same condition of ill-being;
  2. Whether the commission erred in awarding medical expenses; and
  3. Whether the commission erred in awarding penalties and attorney fees for unreasonable delay in the payment of benefits.

The city contended that the plaintiff’s injury was the same condition of ill-being even though it was based on two separate incidents. The court noted “one very significant detail … at the time of the hearing, the first injury had not resolved itself and clearly was a factor when the claimant suffered the second injury.”

The Appellate Court determined that even though the claimant had suffered two injuries, the evidence showed only once condition of ill-being—and vacated the award of 20 percent loss of the person as a whole.

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