NC Court of Appeals' Latest Decisions on Workers' Compensation

The North Carolina Court of Appeals published two opinions on workers' compensation earlier this month. The first, Blalock v. Southeastern Materials, involved an award of attorneys' fees as a sanction for unreasonable defense. N.C.G.S. § 97-88.1 permits the Industrial Commission to award a plaintiff the costs of his attorneys' fees if the case had been defended without reasonable grounds. Here, the Court reversed the Industrial Commission, and concluded that attorneys' fees were appropriate in this case. All of the medical experts, including defendants', agreed that the plaintiff's exposure to cinder block dust aggravated his respiratory condition, which clearly entitles him to workers' compensation benefits. Because defendants had no evidence to the contrary, their defense was unreasonable.

The second case, Gross v. Gene Bennett Co., involves the Parsons presumption for the compensability of medical conditions. If a claim has been found to be or accepted as compensable, then there is a rebuttable presumption that a plaintiff's medical conditions are related to the injury. The Court held, however, "that in the absence of an admission of compensability of an injury by the employer or an agreement between the parties, the Parsons presumption cannot arise at the initial hearing on compensability before the Commission." Putting the assumption aside, the Court concluded that causation of the plaintiff's back injury had not been proved because his doctor's medical causation opinion was expressly qualified by an assumption that plaintiff had no prior back problems, and the Commission found that plaintiff had a prior back problem in 1997.