CP# 97-034715 Martins v. Proctor & Gamble
CP No. 97-034715
September 27, 2000
Calderone, Peter J., S.J.W.C.
A claim petition was filed by petitioner Eurico Martins alleging that; as a result of a work accident, he suffered injuries to his right lung and related internal consequences. The respondent contests the causal relationship of the injuries to his employment and the extent of his injuries.
Petitioner testified that on November 8, 1996, at around 7:45 p.m., he felt a strain in his chest as he picked up a roll of shrink-wrap film that weighed about 60 lbs. He claims that he later had a sharp pain in his chest and fell to the ground. Further, he maintains that he finished his shift that night sitting, due to the pain. He states that supervisor Chris Michal, among others, was aware of his problems. Petitioner went to the hospital the morning of November 9, 1996, was admitted to the hospital and had surgery. He thereafter returned to work for respondent at different duties and separated from respondent’s employ in October 1997. Petitioner is currently working as a systems analyst where he claims he does not have problems performing desk work but will not attempt to lift heavy objects. Petitioner’s chest area where surgery was performed was observed by the court in the presence of counsel to be a large curved healed laceration with two separate portal scars.
Ms. Anne Davis, a machine operator for respondent on November 8, 1996, was subpoenaed for this hearing. She maintained that she had been working on the production line with petitioner and that when petitioner did not return from break, she was informed by team leader Eric Ward that petitioner was ill. Ms. Davis also stated that petitioner later returned to the line but sat down and did not work and indicated to her that he had chest problems. Additionally, she presented that she witnessed petitioner putting a shrink wrap roll of over 50 pounds on the machine prior to his break. Ms. Fernanda Stuart was also subpoenaed as a witness. Ms. Stuart indicated that she was working for respondent on November 8, 1996 and that she had her break with petitioner. Further, she testified that petitioner was not feeling well at break time due to chest problems.
Team coordinator Christopher Michal testified for respondent and indicated that he was on vacation on November 8, 1996. However, he stated that he was petitioner’s supervisor and had worked the preceding four days. He also testified that the wrap rolls weigh between 50-80 pounds. Mr. Eric Ward testified for respondent that he was team coordinator for the group that included petitioner on November 8, 1996. He stated that petitioner advised him prior to the start of the shift that night that petitioner had soreness in his chest. In addition, Mr. Ward maintained that petitioner never informed him that he injured himself lifting wrap and that he never witnessed petitioner in pain. Further, Mr. Ward indicated that if he was aware of a chest problem, he would have taken petitioner for first aid and filled out forms.
Dr. Rowland Goodman, specializing in internal medicine, testified for petitioner. He stated that the medical history and treatment indicated that petitioner had a collapsed lung or pneumothorax. Dr. Goodman found that petitioner presently suffers from residuals of spontaneous right pneumothorax after surgery. Moreover, Dr. Goodman presented that the disability was causally related to the asserted November 8, 1996 work incident. He explained that patients who develop spontaneous pneumothoraxes have minute microscopic lesions or blebs on the surface of the lungs which react with pressure such as heavy lifting. These lesions may rupture according to Dr. Goodman which results in air leaking into the pleural cavity causing pain. Further, Dr. Goodman opined that petitioner’s pneumothorax would probably not have occurred had it not been for the lifting episode.
Respondent’s expert, Dr. Victor Salvo, specializing in internal medicine, stated that petitioner developed a pneumothorax which he characterized as probably an idiopathic condition. He generally concurred with Dr. Goodman that the underlying pathology causing a pneumothorax is likely related to a bleb rupture in the lung. Additionally, Dr. Salvo considered that a pneumothorax patient has a predisposition to this condition and acknowledged that it is possible lifting certain weights may cause a bleb to rupture. He also indicated that a pneumothorax may resolve itself in certain cases. However, as explained by Dr. Salvo, one may have a mild pneumothorax develop which would cure itself naturally but could become worse from exertion.
In Verge v. County of Morris, 272 N.J. Super. 118 (App. Div. 1994), the court discussed at length the standards to be applied in reviewing whether a workplace injury was a compensable accident or a noncompensable idiopathic event. The court recognized that employment need only be a contributing cause and not the sole cause of an accident or injury for workers’ compensation coverage and that the term ‘accident’ has been broadly construed to accomplish the remedial purposes of the compensation law. As outlined in Verge, idiopathic situations have been defined as, "a purely personal condition having no work connection whatever" and "disease or infirmity peculiar to the individual and not a condition of the employment." Id. at 118. Moreover, the court recognized that the employer has the burden of proof to establish that the situation is an idiopathic event due to the physical condition of the employee. See also, Prettyman v. State of New Jersey, 298 N.J. Super. 580 (App. Div. 1997); Shaudys v. IMO Industries, Inc., 285 N.J. Super. 407 (App. Div. 1995).
The essential facts of petitioner’s case are well supported in the record. In particular, he testified that he had no chest problems until he lifted the heavy shrink wrap. Both Ms. Davis and Ms. Stuart, who were clearly credible witnesses with no personal interest in the outcome of this case, presented that they became aware of petitioner’s complaints after he lifted the wrap. In fact, Ms. Davis testified that Mr. Ward was the person who advised her that petitioner was ill when petitioner was late from his break. Neither witness indicated any problems or complaints by petitioner at the team meeting or while he was on the production line prior to the wrap lifting incident. Mr. Ward’s testimony, in my judgment, was not credible with respect to his claim that he was not aware petitioner was ill during the work shift at issue based on Ms. Davis’ more reliable testimony. Moreover, if petitioner had chest complaints on arrival and prior to the wrap incident as Mr. Ward stated, then it is not reasonable to believe that petitioner would have attempted to lift the shrink wrap by himself. It would also appear that Mr. Ward should have taken some further action if petitioner had complaints on work arrival. Mr. Ward’s present testimony may be an improper attempt to be relieved of responsibility for his inaction to provide proper care and complete accident forms after petitioner’s problem became apparent with the lifting episode on November 8, 1996.
I am mindful that petitioner was incorrect in identifying Mr. Michal as being present and the supervisor on November 8, 1996. However, it has been several years since the incident, Mr. Michal was present the preceding four days of the week and petitioner was in pain after the shrink wrap incident which may be factors in his present recollection. His mistake as to Mr. Michal’s presence is not essential to his case since it is clear that Mr. Ward was in fact the supervisor that evening and aware of petitioner’s general situation as verified by Ms. Davis. There was also contrary testimony as to where petitioner rested after the onset of his chest pains. Such disputes over details are not, in my judgment, sufficient to undermine petitioner’s case since it is evident to me that petitioner did have chest pains after the lifting episode and at break time. After break, it is established on this record that petitioner did not resume his production duties and rested for the remainder of the evening.
I am persuaded by Dr. Goodman’s testimony that the lifting of the shrink wrap roll was a contributing cause to the pneumothorax episode. While petitioner may have had an underlying predisposition to a pneumothorax, he had been in good health prior to the incident. Dr. Goodman, as a medical practitioner for many years and certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, demonstrated a very clear, direct and convincing explanation of the manner the pneumothorax developed and the work-related basis of petitioner’s claim. While Dr. Salvo considered an idiopathic explanation more probable, he also recognized that exertion could cause a pneumothorax or contribute to a more severe pneumothorax. It is clear to me that respondent has not established that the pneumothorax was simply an idiopathic situation. The more probable and likely occurrence was that the shrink-wrap lifting episode caused the pneumothorax or exacerbated a developing pneumothorax condition.
Petitioner’s surgical scars are clearly visible at a distance and the surgical laceration covers a rather large area on petitioner’s chest. Moreover, petitioner complained that he still gets pains in his chest and that he has limited his participation in jogging, tackle football and certain exercise activities since the accident. Based on the petitioner’s credible complaints and my observations, it is evident that the accident has resulted in significant permanent disfigurement and impairment of petitioner’s ordinary life pursuits and activities.
After reviewing the entire record, I find that petitioner did sustain an accident on November 8, 1996 while in the employ of the respondent while lifting the shrink wrap roll and that this incident caused or contributed to the pneumothorax condition. I set the disability at 7½% partial total for the residuals of the pneumothorax with significant permanent disfigurement. It is also noted that the pulmonary functions tests were essentially normal and there is no basis for a separate pulmonary or other award. Allowances are set forth in the court’s separate order.