Court: Pre-2010 statute says employee entitled to payment for back pain

Sep 16 2011
The Kansas State Supreme Court ruled that employers must pay for a worker's back pain, even when new state laws exclude pre-existing conditions aggravated on the job. If the injury in question took place before 2010, the previous standards apply.

James Bryant, a former employee of a heating and cooling company, had previously won insurance payments from the Kansas Workers Compensation Board, which his employers had successfully reversed in the appellate court. The case went to the state Supreme Court, which reinstated the original ruling in favor of Bryant.

In the U.S., eight out of every 10 people will experience back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A review by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) found that as of 2004, annual direct costs of treating back pain reached $193.9 billion, and that workers were losing an additional $22.4 billion in wages from not being able to work.

Bryant had injured his back in 1997 after jumping off a boat and onto a dock. Afterwards, he had spine surgery to repair damaged intervertebral discs, followed by other treatments to stabilize his condition. Six years later, his injury appeared to be aggravated by the constant need to stoop down while performing his duties, which required further surgery. After returning to work, employers decreased Bryant's pay rate and work hours.

Both an administrative law judge and the Kansas Workers Compensation Board ruled that Bryant was entitled to payment, with the Board finalizing his award at nearly $69,000. However, his former employers successfully appealed the ruling, saying that Bryant only aggravated pre-existing back pain, and that his injuries came not from work but everyday life.

When Bryant took his case to the Supreme Court, they ruled in his favor again, saying that the back pain he had before was stable before he injured himself on the job. Also, the court said that while there is no "bright-line test" to determine whether an injury happened on the job or not, the event has to be considered in the context of bodily movements demanded by the job. In Bryant's case, bending down to work was not considered a part of everyday life outside the job.

In 2010, lawmakers in Kansas amended Workers Compensation law to say it would not cover injuries that aggravated pre-existing conditions or that resulted from activities outside of work. These standards did not apply to Bryant because his case began before the new law took effect, and the change was not retroactive.

There are several things people can do to avoid back pain. Exercises to strengthen the back muscles or improve balance, such as yoga or any weight training, could help, according to the National Institute for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, a division of the NIH. The back should be kept straight while lifting heavy objects, with the weight borne in part by the legs and hips. A diet rich in vitamin D and calcium will also support bone strength.