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Fifth District affirms workers’ compensation rulings out of McGlynn’s court

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | May 10, 2016

The Fifth District Appellate Court affirmed three separate workers’ compensation decisions out of St. Clair County, in which a Freeburg custodian alleges he injured his back from heavy lifting and manual labor while on the job.

Justice Bruce Stewart delivered the Rule 23 decision on May 5, affirming the decision out of Circuit Judge Stephen McGlynn’s court.

McGlynn held that two of the workers’ compensation claims should be denied while the third was sufficient. His rulings affirmed decisions from the Workers’ Compensation Commission.

The appellate court determined that claimant James Thoma failed to prove that he sustained accidental injuries in the course of his employment in his first claim from July 10, 2006, when he allegedly injured himself while assembling playground equipment. The court held that Thoma’s coworkers did not remember him hurting his back and no documentation that he reported the incident exists. Thoma also alleges he has had a history of back trouble dating back to 1991.

The court also held that the claimant failed to prove he sustained repetitive trauma injuries from manual labor and heavy lifting in his second claim from Nov. 7, 2008.

But the appellate court held that Thoma did prove in his third claim that he sustained an accident injury arising out of his employment on May 7, 2010, when he injured his back while lifting a bucket. The injury allegedly caused his current condition of pain and “ill-being.” Also, a coworker confirmed his testimony, Thoma was taken to a hospital by ambulance for treatment and medical testimony showed that the incident aggravated his back condition.

“There is sufficient evidence in the record to support the Commission’s determination that the claimant sustained an accidental injury on May 7, 2010, that arose out of and in the course of his employment and that his current condition of ill-being was causally related to the accident,” the appellate court held.

Thoma brings the three separate claims for workers’ compensation benefits against his employer, Freeburg Community School District #70.

The three claims were consolidated and proceeded to an expedited arbitration hearing, in which the arbitrator found that the claimant failed to prove he sustained accidental injuries arising out of and in the course of his employment for the 2006 and 2008 injuries.

However, the arbitrator found that the 2010 injury did arise in the course of his employment. Thoma was awarded temporary total disability benefits of $481.67 from May 8 through May 16, 2010, and from Aug. 5, 2010, through Oct. 20, 2011.

She further awarded him maintenance benefits of $418.67 per week from Oct. 21 through Dec. 8, 2011. The arbitrator found that Thoma reached maximum medical improvement on Oct. 20, 2011, with permanent restrictions that the employer would not accommodate.

She ordered the school district to pay medical expenses for his May 2010 injuries. She also ordered the school district to provide Thoma with vocational assistance.

Both parties sought review of the arbitrator’s decision before the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, which corrected clerical errors but affirmed and adopted the decision.

They both filed timely appeals for review in the St. Clair County Circuit Court.

On Sept. 29, 2014, McGlynn affirmed the decision regarding the 2010 incident. Then on Jan. 21, 2015, he affirmed the decision regarding the remaining two claims.

Both parties appealed to the Fifth District.

Thoma worked as a custodian for the school district for more than 19 years before he was terminated on June 27, 2011. His work duties included vacuuming, cleaning, taking out trash, mopping, waxing floors, mowing and shoveling snow, among other duties. During the summer he was also required to remove everything from classrooms to clean the rooms.

Thoma admitted that he suffered from back pain for several years and began physical therapy for his back around 1998 or 1999.

He continued performing all of his work duties while seeking treatment for his back problems.

Then in July 2006, Thoma claims he and two coworkers were assembling playground equipment when his back locked up. He said he told his coworkers what happened and went into the teacher’s lounge to lay on the floor for a bit. He alleges another coworker saw him in there and told her what happened. He spent the remainder of the day taking it easy.

The coworker from the teacher’s lounge testified that he came in to lay down with tears in his eyes. But the coworkers working on the playground equipment testified that they did not remember him injuring himself.

Thoma also claims he informed the superintendent of his injury, who told him to inform the school nurse. Because she doesn’t work during the summer, he says he told her of the injury around the first week of August. However, she informed him that no accident report was taken when the incident occurred.

Thoma was eventually given lifting restrictions by his physician, which the school district accommodated. The plaintiff claims he didn’t file a worker’s compensation claim at the time because he didn’t know about such claims.

However, he continued his regular job duties, which allegedly further aggravated his back.

Then in May 2009, Thoma had back surgery in an attempt to fix his injuries and ease his pain.

Thoma returned to work on Nov. 2, 2009.

Then on May 7, 2010, Thoma claims he turned to dump out a bucket of chemicals when a pain shot up into his shoulder blades, chest and lower back. He fell to the ground and two coworkers called an ambulance.

He was later placed on permanent restrictions in November 2010. He was encouraged to attend college or vocational rehabilitation because he could never return to heavy manual labor. Then in October 2011, Thoma was permitted to return to work short-term for one or two hours at a time.

Thoma attempted to return to his job with the school district, but the defendant refused.

St. Clair County Circuit Court case number 13-MR-421

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