Legally Speaking: Aggravation Of a Pre-Existing Condition and Workers’ Compensation

Tom Clement
Thomas Clement, Vice President, Operations and General Counsel

Pre-existing conditions are often a natural part of the human experience, especially as people age. In the employment context, the question often becomes whether workers’ compensation benefits must be paid where a prior condition is aggravated. As with many legal questions, the facts and circumstances drive the conclusion. 

MCL 418.301(1) states in part that “[A] personal injury under this act is compensable if work causes, contributes to, or aggravates pathology in a manner so as to create a pathology that is medically distinguishable from any pathology that existed prior to the injury.” As applied through caselaw, sometimes inconsistently, when a work-related injury interacts with a pre-existing condition, the two conditions must be distinguished and only separate work-related aggravation compensable. Where the two are not related, no distinguishment is required, and the injury is compensable provided the injury was caused by or contributed to by work-related activity.[1] Kendrick v Leon Plastics, Inc, 2005 ACO #243 illustrates the latter scenario well. Claimant Kendrick’s work led to inflammation and cervical nerve pinching in his spine, which was already compromised by arthritis. However, neither the arthritis nor an aggravation of it led to the claimed disability and, therefore, no pathology distinguishment was required in order to secure benefits.[2] Had the arthritis or an aggravation of it been related to the injury, Kendrick would be required to prove a medical pathology distinguishable from the pre-existing condition by a preponderance of the evidence.

Two important caveats. First, the rules outlined here do not apply in every circumstance. For example, mental disabilities and conditions of the aging process have their own set of rules and causation is subject to a higher standard. Second, the phrase “medically distinguishable” is extremely broad, leaving it open to interpretation by workers’ compensation magistrates and other judicial officers.

Employers want to open up employment opportunities to all individuals, but it is equally important to know the physical demands of each job, make prospective employees aware of those demands, and make hiring decisions conducive to a safe working environment.

[1] See Worker’s Compensation in Michigan: Law and Practice. Sixth Edition, February 2023 Update. Chapter 6, Section 6.4.

[2] See also, Id.