New York Case Illustrates That Correlation Between Years of Heavy Work and Back Problems Is Insufficient to Support Compensability

A New York decision reported yesterday, Satalino v. Dan’s Supreme Supermarket, 2012 NY Slip Op 86, 2012 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 63 (Jan. 5, 2012), illustrates the important distinction between correlation and causation as well as the difficulty in distinguishing between disability brought about by occupational disease or illness, on the one hand, and the natural aging process, on the other. Affirming a denial of beneifts, the appellate court indicated the worker had failed to establish a causal relationship between his disability and his employment. 

Satalino worked for a grocery store for 35 years, unloading delivery trucks, stacking boxes and stocking store shelves–mostly heavy work. In January 2009, Satalino underwent the first of two surgeries on his lumbar spine and never returned to work. He sought workers’ compensation benefits, alleging that his condition was causally related to his employment. A Workers’ Compensation Law Judge determined that Satalino had suffered an occupational disease to his lumbar spine and awarded him benefits. On review, the Workers’ Compensation Board reversed that decision and disallowed the claim.

Upon further appeal, the appellate court offered three points regarding compensability of occupational disease claims:

  1. That under N.Y. Work. Comp. Law § 2 [15], an occupational disease is “a disease resulting from the nature of employment and contracted therein.”
  2. To be entitled to benefits based upon an occupational disease, “the claimant must establish a recognizable link between his or her condition and a distinctive feature of his or her employment;” and
  3. Medical opinions regarding a causal relationship “must signify ‘a probability as to the underlying cause’ of the claimant’s injury which is supported by a rational basis.”

Satalino offered medical reports and testimony of two treating physicians. The first, a neurological surgeon who began treating Satalino in 2008, diagnosed claimant as suffering from disc herniation, arthritis, spondylolisthesis and stenosis. The physician could not, however, find a relationship between Satalino’s condition and his employment. On the one hand, the surgeon testified that the disc herniations could have been caused by heavy lifting; they might also have been related to chronic disc degeneration. As for Satalino’s arthritis, stenosis and spondylolisthesis, the doctor opined that each could be related to claimant’s age and not his job.

A separate neurological surgeon–the physician who performed two surgeries on claimant–testified that Satalino’s disc degeneration resulted from both natural degeneration and his job duties. He opined that years of heavy lifting had accelerated his degenerative condition. It also appeared, however, that in an early medical report the surgeon had indicated Satalino’s condition was unrelated to his employment. The surgeon testified that, although the community of spinal surgeons generally believed that repetitive lifting could injure the spine, there was no scientific evidence supporting that conclusion.

Noting that the Board was free to reject medical opinions where an expert did not testify convincingly in support of a causal relationship, the appellate court concluded that the Board had not abused its discretion in determining that Satalino failed to establish a recognizable link between his condition and his employment.

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