20th June 2017

An Aggravation of a Previous Condition is an Injury

The Case that Changed Pennsylvania Workers Compensation Law

On November 7, 1977, Frank Pawlosky filed a claim petition for benefits in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, alleging a work-related disability. That petition, filed against his employer, Latrobe Brewing Company, set in motion a legal battle that would span ten years. Three appeals, and ultimately culminate in a seismic shakeup of Pennsylvania workers' compensation doctrine.

In May of 2017, Pennsylvania will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of this landmark case. This is a story about a man: injured in the course of his labor, forced to face burdening medical costs with the ever-present need to provide for his family.

On May 29, 1987, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down its opinion, affirming the lower court, granting Frank Pawlosky's claim, and fundamentally altering the way in which work injuries are litigated and compensated across the Commonwealth.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice Nix first recounted the claimant's background, trail-level testimony, medical evidence, and Commonwealth Court reasoning.

He then went on to provide historical context for the landmark decision, writing that, "It has been observed that the he word 'accident' in the original Act was deliberately left free of precise statutory definition to keep the concept flexible and to allow the courts greater latitude for interpretations that would further the basic purposes of the stature." He went on to state, "The 1939 Disease Act designated thirteen ailments which would be deemed 'occupational diseases.' To that list other ailments were later added, as was an omnibus or ’catch-all' provision to allow coverage for non-designated disease if certain conditions are met."

Moving to the more recent developments, Chief Justice Nix noted, "In 1972 The Pennsylvania Workmen's Compensation Act underwent extensive amendment. For example, in selection 101 of the Act, ... the word 'accident’ was excised as a condition for the statue’s applicability, and the word ‘injury’ substituted. A corresponding change was made in section 301(a), … thus eliminating ‘accident’ as a requirement for compensation.”

The court noted that the 1972 Amendments altered the language of the statute, the concept of “injury” became “broad enough in its scope to encompass all work-related harm to an employee ‘regardless of his physical condition.” In striking statement, the court said, “it may now be said, generally, that an employer takes an employee as he comes.”

And thus, the liberalization and expansion of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act was solidified

Still, the court noted that the 1972 Amendments did not provide the word “injury” with any statutory definition. And so history repeated itself, whereby the court endeavored to interpret and define this new scheme.

The court found it “utterly preposterous for the appellant to argue that the current version of section 301 is no more than the pre-1972 concepts of compensable injury supplemented by coverage for occupational diseases.” Calling the argument “bizarre,” Chief Justice Nix wrote, “What the appellant fails to recognize is that, as a result of 1972 amendment of section 301(c), the term ‘injury’ became a greatly broadened concept, of which occupational disease is but one dimension.” As it related to Mr. Pawlosky and claimants like him, “his previous condition is of no consequence” and a “job-related aggravation of a pre-existing disease is not precluded from being an ‘injury’ under the Act merely because that disease is not an ‘occupational disease.”

Turning to Mr. Pawlosky’s facts, the court found that, “Given the nature of bronchospasm, each instance in which such an attack was caused by the chemical fumes would constitute an injury…” And, in language still relied upon 30 years later, the court defined the term “injury” as “an adverse and hurtful change.”158 In Mr. Pawlosky’s case, this change caused him to “suffer a lessened facility in the natural use of a bodily activity or capability, i.e., breathing.” The court then held that “the adverse effect of the chemical fumes on the claimant’s pre-existent asthmatic condition constituted an ‘injury’ within the meaning of section 301(c)(1) of the Act.”

To curb concerns of increased frivolous litigation, the court reminded readers that this new mechanism “can hardly be said to have gained for [Pawlosky] an unlawful evidentiary advantage or lessening of his proof burden. Indeed, under the Act, it is the claimant seeking to recover for an occupational disease who is given a procedural or evidentiary advantage.” The court concluded, “Based on the record evidence in the instant case and the referee’s factual findings with respect thereto, we must conclude that the claimant proved all that was necessary to entitle him to an award of workmen’s compensation.”

Thirty years after Frank Pawlosky was awarded benefits, his name remains etched in the laws of Pennsylvania workers’ compensation. Whether an individual suffers an aggravation of spinal stenosis or pulmonary impairment, compensation is provided if that injury arises in the course of employment and is medically related thereto.

American law is rich with examples of ordinary citizens changing the status quo. As for Pennsylvania work-injury law, Robert Smith was a maintenance man for Plasteel Products Corporation; Joseph Krawczynski was a charger-operator helper for Universal Cyclops Corporation; and Frank Pawlosky was a brewery worker for Latrobe Brewing Company. Of course, progress could never be accomplished without the lawyers so dedicated to the causes for which they fight. Even the losing parties in such cases are vital to the history of the litigation; progress necessitates the skilled battle of ideas.

Behind every workers’ compensation claim, there existed an individual who labored in their community. Unpredictable circumstances led each of them to a judge’s hearing room.

The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act is unique in many ways. As one of its defining aspects, it recognizes a unanimous social resolve, wherein the health and well-being of individuals is always to be placed before profits. The expansion of these laws throughout the 1970’s and 80’s reflects this philosophy. Pawlosky was the culmination of nationwide trends, stretching back to the 1972 Amendments and the broader movement towards more expansive workers’ rights.

When a worker is injured, the employer’s insurance company is liable for his or her recovery.

The times and dangers change, but the concepts remain the same; whether it is a mineworker who suffers injury from a structural collapse in the early twentieth century, or a brewery worker who suffers a pulmonary irritation from his working space almost seventy years later, those individuals have found protection under the same law.

Frank Pawlosky’s story will continue to guide Pennsylvania workers’ compensation law for many years to come.

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