Appeal of Peter Southworth, No. 2022-0544 (decided Jan. 30, 2024).

In a case recently decided by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the Court emphasized how crucial it is to prove that all aspects of an injury were caused by your employment to receive workers’ compensation.

In the case before the court, Mr. Southworth worked as an English teacher and was on a field trip with his students when he got a cut on his leg. It swelled up, and weeks later he went to the doctor where he learned he had Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus (MRSA). Mr. Southworth’s MRSA infection got significantly worse over the next few weeks, eventually causing him to collapse into a coma. He was in the hospital for about a month and underwent several spinal surgeries.

Mr. Southworth was initially denied workers’ compensation benefits by his employer’s insurance carrier. He then had a hearing before the Department of Labor where the Department found that he was entitled to benefits. The employer appealed to the Compensation Appeals Board, who decided that he was not entitled to benefits.

The CAB noted that while he did suffer a work injury, and there was a “general possibility” that Mr. Southworth contracted MRSA at work, the claimant did not meet his burden because his treating provider did not “opine that [the claimant] actually contracted MRSA at work.” Instead, the CAB apparently relied on the insurance carrier’s retained medical expert, who noted that it was “impossible to determine” the source of where the claimant acquired MRSA.

Mr. Southworth appealed the CAB decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, giving rise to the January 30, 2024 order. Upon review, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the CAB, finding “it is not dispositive that [the treating provider] did not opine that the claimant actually contracted MRSA at work, or that [the retained expert] opined that one cannot determine whether family or workplace was the more likely source.”

Rather, the Supreme Court noted that the claimant’s burden should have been “whether the MRSA infection was a direct and natural result of that injury.” Because that issue had not yet been determined, the CAB decision was vacated and the matter was remanded to address “whether the MRSA infection and medical consequences were the direct and natural result of the claimant’s work-related injury to his leg.”

The decision in Southworth further clarifies the New Hampshire Supreme Court line of recent cases regarding the employer’s ongoing liability for subsequent injuries to claimants such as Pelmac. These cases should make it more likely that injured workers are better protected under the workers’ compensation statute for their ongoing injuries and treatment.

Workers’ Compensation Attorneys

Shawn J. Tennis

Shawn J. Tennis

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John L. Ward

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