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Proving Disability For Workers Compensation Benefits In North Carolina

In June 2011, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina addressed the issue of the proof required to show a disability for workers’ compensation benefits in North Carolina. Its ruling further clarifies what is necessary to prove work-related disability to obtain workers’ compensation benefits.

Work-Related Injury Case Reaches Court of Appeals

The injured worker in the case was an MRI technologist. She told her employer that she was having pain in her shoulders and arms as well as cramping and numbness in her hands. A physical therapist did an ergonomic assessment of her workstation and suggested changes.

Despite making the suggested changes, the employee was diagnosed with carpel tunnel syndrome and eventually needed injection therapy and surgery. Her surgery was successful, but her surgeon did not release her to go back to work. The employee then applied for workers’ compensation benefits, but her claim was denied. The Industrial Commission then decided that her carpal tunnel syndrome was a compensable occupational disease and awarded compensation for ongoing total disability.

The employer’s workers’ compensation insurer appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals of North Carolina. The court affirmed the Commission’s decision that the carpal tunnel syndrome was an occupational disease, but it ruled that the employee was not entitled to disability workers’ compensation benefits because she had failed to meet her burden of proving that she was disabled after her surgery. The surgeon’s abstention from releasing her to work was insufficient to prove disability under North Carolina workers’ compensation law.

Proving Disability in North Carolina

The North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act states that an employee is disabled if he or she is unable to earn the wages he or she was receiving at the time of injury in the same or any other employment because of a work-related injury. The employee has the burden of proving that he or she is unable to earn the same wages as before as a result of the injury, and this generally can be done by presenting the following evidence:

  • Medical evidence showing that the employee is physically or mentally incapable of performing any work
  • Evidence that the employee is capable of performing some work but is unable to find employment after reasonable effort
  • Evidence that the employee is capable of performing some work but that seeking other work is futile because of his or her age, inexperience, lack of education, pre-existing physical conditions or other problems that, combined with the compensable injury, make trying to find a job a waste of time, or
  • Evidence that the employee has obtained other employment but at a lower wage than previously earned, which proves partial disability

In the case, the Court of Appeals held that a doctor’s not having released an injured worker to return to work after surgery, under the circumstances of that case, was not the same as evidence that she was unable to perform any work, under the first prong above. The case illustrates how technical proof of disability can be and the importance of being able to get the right evidence to support a claim.

If you have been injured on the job, consult an experienced workers’ compensation attorney to help you prove your disability claim.