The Colorado Court of Appeals on July 15 upheld a judge’s ruling giving a Colorado Springs man lifetime benefits, which could translate to approximately $10 million, for a minor workplace injury that left him paralyzed.
Royce Mueller, a senior attorney at Franklin D. Azar & Associates who represented Theodore Martinez in the case, said the “chain of causation” case was unusual in his experience. Martinez received a minor back strain on the job, and a staph infection led to his paraplegia.
“This was really just a great way to vindicate Ted and get him the money that I always felt, and he always felt, he was entitled to when this thing went south,” Mueller said.
Chain of causation cases, according to Mueller, say that when the initial work injury leaves the body in some kind of compromised condition, and as a result of that compromised condition other bad things happen, those are a “natural and proximate result of the underlying injury as well.”
When the incident took place in 2018, Martinez was in his early 50s and had been working at Colorado Springs Utilities for approximately 18 years. He was on the job, and his back injury had nothing to do with any specialized work performed. After parking his work truck, Martinez went to remove some pieces of equipment and a laptop from the back of the truck, Mueller said. With equipment in hand, he nudged the door closed with his hip and when he set the equipment down, he felt a “pop” in his back, according to the Court of Appeals decision.
“That was it,” Mueller said. The city authorized him for treatment at its occupational health department and had visits with an occupational health doctor. The city filed a formal notice of contest denying his claim, before anything had progressed to surgery, staph infection and paraplegia. However, as time passed, Martinez was in the emergency room with excruciating back pain that continued to worsen.
The city had claimed that the staph infection was an independent intervening event that had nothing to do with the original work injury and said it was not responsible for the following events that happened to Martinez, Mueller said.
The minor back strain Martinez received became inflamed and eventually hypervascular, meaning it had a large number of blood vessels, Mueller said. The treating infectious disease specialist theorized that sores on Martinez’s leg might have been the source of the staph infection, and because of the back strain and hypervascularity from the strain, the staph was able to enter the back in the strained area and “ceded” there.
“Chances are extremely high that if he hadn’t had the back strain, his body would have been able to fight off this staph infection and the immune system just kill it,” Mueller said. But, because of the strain, the staph infection had a place to attack the spine, which led to his paraplegia.
Mueller affirmed that the crux of the case was linking the infection to the back strain. He added that in 25 years of practice, he had not seen a chain of causation case of this magnitude before, and never a staph case reaching paraplegia.
Although Mueller hadn’t seen a similar case, the Court of Appeals cited in reaching its conclusion. In Standard Metals v. Ball, a worker had fallen at work, sustained a broken leg and was off for extended time getting the leg fixed. Finally, after returning to work, the man fell on an icy sidewalk while off duty and broke his leg again in the same place. In that case, the insurance company claimed it was just an off-duty fall that had nothing to do with the original break, but the physician in the case said “but for the original break, his leg wouldn’t have had the break in the same place” and the company had to pay, Mueller said.
“It’s just a good way for the law to recognize that sometimes unforeseen consequences are compensable,” Mueller said.
The judge at the initial hearing of the case rejected the city’s stance that the medical events happening to Martinez were not connected to his workplace injury, Mueller said.
“The whole thing was going to be won or lost at that initial hearing,” Mueller said. Once the case was won before the initial administrative law judge, the city appealed, and the next step was to the Industrial Claim Appeal Office, where the ruling was affirmed. Finally, it was appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reaffirmed the judge.
Mueller believes that Martinez will probably not be able to ever return to work. He estimated past wage-loss benefits to be approximately $80,000, and the future benefits, assuming Martinez is totally disabled, would be roughly $600,000.
Among Martinez’s costs, Mueller listed $120,000 in home modifications, the cost of a motorized wheelchair and wheelchair-accessible van. His health insurance paid approximately $272,000, Mueller said. “It’s almost an endless stream of medical attention he is going to need for the rest of his life.”