Is my back injury covered by workers’ comp?

What is workers’ compensation?

The North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act requires qualifying employers to provide benefits to employees that suffer work-related injuries or illnesses.  Most often, employers obtain workers’ comp insurance through an insurance company.  This insurance helps pay for medical care, wages from lost time at work, and more. Covered workers’ comp injuries can include back injuries or injuries to other body parts.

To receive workers’ comp benefits you have to prove that your injury happened while on the job and that the injury was a result of an accident.  Workers’ comp does not take contributory negligence into consideration.  That is, an injured worker being at fault is not considered and the injured person can still be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits regardless of whether they were at fault.  Of course, intentional injuries are not covered.

This “no-fault” workers’ compensation scheme is different from other injury cases.  All that needs to be present is an “injury by accident” for a workers’ compensation case.  However, there are some nuances and not all injuries are treated the same depending on the body part injured.

For back injuries, how does “injury by accident” apply?

Generally, an injury by accident occurs when an accident is unlooked for and not expected or designed by the person who suffers the injury. An example of an injury by accident would be a slip and fall.  Or, a rear end collision or other auto accident.

Back injuries can be covered by workers’ compensation even without an accident like a slip and fall or auto accident if you can identify a specific traumatic incident. This means that if you hurt your back pushing, pulling or lifting heavy objects while on the job your injury could be covered in workers’ compensation.  Even though a person may not immediately know they are injured, if the injury can be isolated to have occurred during a “judicially cognizable time” when a pull or twinge was felt, there may be a compensable workers’ compensation claim for benefits related to the back injury. 

What does “judicially cognizable time” mean?

A “judicially cognizable time” is a legal term of art judicially interpreted to mean that the injury must have occurred at a cognizable time, that is, at a judicially determinable time, and that the injury did not develop gradually.

“Judicially cognizable time” was discussed in the case of Fish v. Steelcase, 116 N.C.App. 703, 449 S.E.2d 233 (1994). In that case, the plaintiff worked for a company that manufactured desks. The desks, weighing between 400-450 pounds, were to be pushed manually with no electric help.  One day at work, the plaintiff felt a pull in his lower back while moving a desk.  The plaintiff had no history of back pain or problems.

Though he could not recall the exact date, the plaintiff remembered that sometime during the month of April he was pushing a 400-450-pound desk and felt a pull in his lower back. The plaintiff was unable to determine the specific day of the injury but had a close estimate of the time frame of when it happened. The plaintiff went to the plant nurse during May and expressed that the pain has been present for the last month.  Even though there is a variety of possible dates for the specific traumatic incident, the evidence satisfied the judicially cognizable time requirement.

The take away from the Fish case is that so long as an injured worker can identify a window during which there was a specific traumatic incident, such as a twinge or pull, the claim may be compensable under the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act.

What to do if you have a back or other injury at work?

If you ever have an injury on the job, there are a few things that should be done immediately to protect yourself. Here is a quick list:

(1) Report the injury to your boss. 

(2) Seek medical treatment for your injury.

(3) Make sure an incident report was filled out.

(4) Contact an attorney to help guide you through the workers’ compensation process.

You should take these steps regardless of the body part injured.

The North Carolina personal injury and workers’ comp attorneys at Horton & Mendez handle all types of injury cases.  Call us today for a free confidential consultation to see whether you may be entitled to monetary compensation or workers’ compensation benefits after your injury.

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