Morrison Mahoney Partner Ted Murphy recently obtained two defense verdicts for a large defense contractor for the United States Navy.
In the first case, the plaintiff burned his knee on molten metal during the course of his employment as a welder at our client's nuclear shipyard. Although painful, the injury was relatively minor in nature. Plaintiff self-treated with over-the-counter medications and missed no time from work. Two weeks later, plaintiff developed cellulitis just below the location of the burn injury, resulting in significant lower extremity swelling and drainage. He was treated with powerful antibiotics that largely cleared the infection, but resulted in Clostridium Difficile Colitis (a common consequence of broad spectrum antibiotic treatment). This led to the development of Klebsiella sepsis that resulted in renal damage, requiring dialysis, as well as cardiac problems. During plaintiff’s convalescence, he developed deep venous thrombosis and had a stroke. Plaintiff nearly lost his life before making a reasonable recovery.
The case was brought under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Act. All of the medical experts agreed that the complications plaintiff developed were the result of the cellulitis and antibiotic treatment for that condition. Accordingly, the primary issue for trial was the cause of the cellulitis. Plaintiff's experts testified that the entry wound need not be significant in size to cause a cellulitis infection provided that there is a breach of the skin allowing bacteria to enter. They noted that the severe swelling plaintiff developed occurred only two weeks after his burn injury occurred (in the same general area) and the fact that there were no other known portals into the skin other than the burn wound, which left visible scars on plaintiff’s knee.
In a 20 page opinion, the federal Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) hearing the case adopted the opinion of our client's infectious disease expert over those of plaintiff's experts who were also his treating physicians and concluded that plaintiff had not met his burden of proving a causal connection between the burn injury and cellulitis. The judge noted plaintiff's numerous risk factors for cellulitis independent of the burn injury and our expert's convincing testimony that an infection of this nature usually travels “upstream” in the direction of the heart rather than downward.
The second win involved a pulmonary injury case also brought under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Act. Plaintiff, a former machinist and inspector at our client's nuclear shipyard, alleged that his tobacco-related chronic obstructive lung disease was worsened by his extensive dust and fume exposure at the shipyard, thus making his entire condition compensable under the employee-friendly Act.
The judge credited the opinion of our client's pulmonary expert over that of plaintiff's treating pulmonologist, concluding that the latter's opinion on medical causation was “vague” and not well supported by the medical literature. The judge adopted our expert's testimony that plaintiff's lung disease manifested primarily in a reduced diffusion capacity – a hallmark for emphysema that was entirely related to his heavy smoking – and not bronchitis, asthma, or other subcategory of COPD that can be related to industrial dust and fume exposure. The judge further found that the severity of claimant's lung disease from smoking alone made it unlikely that his exposure to various dusts and fumes in the shipyard could have contributed any further to his disease.