Legally Speaking: Evidence is the name of the game

The coin of the realm in a lawsuit is evidence. Cases succeed or fail based on proof. A recent workers’ compensation case demonstrates this vividly.

The plaintiff was an employee of Staff Team Hotels Corp., which provides various services to hotels. Plaintiff worked as a laundry attendant at an STHC client’s facility. On May 22, 2019, plaintiff was asked to help carry mattresses to guestrooms. As he was lifting one with a co-worker, plaintiff suddenly felt tingling on his right side and pinching in his neck. During the two months thereafter, he made four trips to a hospital emergency room with consistent complaints of pain. He thereafter filed for workers’ compensation benefits. STHC challenged plaintiff’s entitlement.

At the hearing, plaintiff testified he had been experiencing back and neck pain nonstop since the day he lifted the mattresses, and he further testified that he shared this information with emergency room personnel on each of his visits. Plaintiff’s treating physician opined that the May 22 incident was the major contributing cause of plaintiff’s ongoing debilitating condition.

Looks like a great case for plaintiff, no? Keep reading.

Plaintiff did not inform his employer of the mattress incident until he filed for benefits. None of the hospital records from any of plaintiff’s four trips report that plaintiff complained of back or neck pain. Nor do they indicate plaintiff informed attending medical personnel of the mattress incident, or that he attributed his pain to that occurrence. Based on the symptoms plaintiff reported, he was diagnosed at the first and second emergency room visit with heat exhaustion and was discharged with directions to stay hydrated. On the third trip he was diagnosed with kidney issues, excessive water intake and anxiety. At the fourth, he was diagnosed with chronic renal insufficiency, muscle pain and myalgia.

The employer hired a doctor who conducted a physical exam of plaintiff and reviewed all the medical records. He concluded there was no evidence to support plaintiff’s claim that he suffered a back or neck injury from lifting the mattresses. Giving the conflicting medical opinions, the judge sought input from a third doctor. He, too, examined plaintiff and the records and concurred with the physician hired by the employer.

Based on the evidence, plaintiff’s workers’ compensation request was denied and the denial was affirmed on appeal. As it is said, the proof of the pudding is in the taste.

The lessons are these: Take all precautions to render working conditions as safe as possible. Also, although a case may initially look like a sure loser, it’s not over ’til it’s over. Evidence needs to be preserved, meticulously gathered and carefully reviewed. It may well tip the scales in your favor.

Karen Morris is a lawyer, municipal judge and Distinguished Professor at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., where she teaches hospitality law.