Pre-Existing Condition Does Not Prevent Firefighter’s Workers’ Compensation Claim

Paul Bryson was a firefighter for the Brownsburg, Indiana Fire Territory. In 2008 and 2009, Bryson suffered a series of three injuries while working. On May 21, 2008, Bryson and other Brownsburg firefighters were attempting to reattach the firehouse bay door. Bryson stood on top of a ladder and “resisted the force of a commercial garage door opener without getting knocked off” the ladder. In the process, he felt a sharp pain in the left side of his lower back. Bryson sought medical attention that same day. A doctor diagnosed Bryson with a lumbar strain, prescribed medication and a rehabilitative exercise plan, and restricted his physical labor for five days.

On December 17, 2008, another incident occurred. Bryson and other firefighters were performing “bailout drills,” wherein a firefighter, wearing protective gear weighing at least 65 pounds, would jump out of a second story window and rappel down the side of the building using a rope that was wrapped around his waist. Bryson performed this drill, followed by a similar bailout drill that required jumping out of a window and getting to the ground using a ladder. When Bryson completed the second bailout drill, he was ordered to move the large ladder. Immediately after moving the ladder, Bryson took a step away from the ladder “and then just buckled…just like a wounded animal. He just collapsed.”

On August 1, 2009, Bryson suffered a third incident while on duty. Bryson helped the Department test a fire hose, which entailed pulling about 300 feet of a fire hose off a fire truck. A lieutenant estimated the hose weighed approximately 60 to 80 pounds per 100 feet. After finishing the test, Bryson complained to the lieutenant that he was in pain. The next morning he sought medical care, and was diagnosed with a left sacroiliac joint sprain.

Eventually, Bryson requested a determination of disability with the Brownsburg Fire Territory’s Local Pension Board. When the case wound up in the Indiana Court of Appeals, the sole question was whether Bryson had a “Class 1” or “Class 2” impairment. Under an Indiana statute, a Class 1 impairment must be the direct result of an on-duty injury, while a Class 2 impairment is a duty-related disease, means a disease arising out of the Fund member’s employment. Higher workers’ compensation benefits are accorded to Class 1 impairments.

The Retirement Fund argued that to be entitled to a Class 1 impairment, Bryson had to be free of pre-existing conditions. Since Bryson had prior back problems that were not duty-related, if the Fund’s argument were accepted, Bryson would have only been entitled to Class 2 benefits.

The Court rejected the Fund’s argument. The Court rule that “in application, the Fund’s argument would necessitate that the Fund member was perfectly healthy and without any pre-existing conditions, at least in relation to the part of the body impacted by an on-duty injury, in order to qualify as Class 1. We do not think that an impairment being the ‘direct result’ of a personal injury sustained while on duty requires this exclusivity. We conclude that a Fund member who was able to perform his job duties before an on-duty injury despite having a pre-existing condition or health issue that preceded the on-duty injury, and who becomes unable to perform his job duties only after sustaining an on-duty injury, has an impairment that is the ‘direct result’ of the physical injury or injuries sustained while on duty. This is so even if the on-duty injury created an impairment by exacerbating a preexisting condition, so long as the pre-existing condition did not previously prevent the Fund member from performing his or her job duties.

“Bryson’s supervisor testified that Bryson was one of the hardest working firefighters he oversaw prior to the series of on-duty injuries, and that he could not recall Bryson ever notifying him of any substantial injuries or bouts of pain in the seven years before these injuries. The evidence undisputedly shows Bryson had a pre-existing condition, but it also reveals his preexisting condition did not impair his ability to work prior to the string of injuries here at issue. Thus, we conclude Bryson’s impairment was a direct result of the injuries that occurred while he was on duty, and he therefore has a Class 1 impairment.”

Indiana Public Employee Retirement Fund v. Bryson, 2012 WL 4789824 (Ind. App. 2012).