The American Medical Association produces guides that can apply to workers’ compensation cases in terms of levels of impairment or which conditions are covered. What happens when a worker is legitimately injured but their condition is not listed in such a guide?
Orville Lambdin worked for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company for thirty seven years. When he started working in 1972 he was not provided with hearing protection. That didn’t come along until the mid-1980’s at which point Lambdin wore the protective equipment all the time. He retired in 2009 and sought workers’ comp benefits for the gradual hearing loss he suffered on his job.
The initial reviewing party could not come to an agreement so his case was heard in trial court. The issue was that the AMA guide said that there were impairment levels at hearing loss ranges of 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 3,000 hertz. Humans can hear at levels over 10,000 hertz, and Mr. Lambdin’s hearing loss was beyond that 3,000 hertz range. Medical opinions presented in court said his hearing loss was up to 4,000 hertz. He was awarded 30% vocational disability for his impairment between 2,000-3,000 hertz and his impairment between 3,000-4,000 hertz, which the employer appealed. They did not agree with the method that the doctor used to come to the conclusion that he was above the AMA’s levels of impairment and should be compensated as such.
In the state Supreme Court, Lambdin told the court that his job involved him to work around machines that “squealed terribly”, trucks going by that were very loud, another machine operated by a co-worker nearby that produced loud noises and the noise from regular tire-bladder blowouts. He said he thinks that out of an eight hour workday it was noisy for seven and a quarter hours. In later years of his job he was switched to running a G3 mechanism which was also very noisy, and at this point he heard ringing in his ears and had to turn up the volume on televisions and radios to very high levels to hear. He said he couldn’t hear a normal conversation if there was some background noise.
The employer routinely tested him for hearing loss over the years which showed a slow onset of hearing loss. Lambdin’s doctor, Dr. Karl Studtmann, said that he thought his hearing would continue to decline and he would ultimately need hearing aids. Dr. Studtmann said that he came to this conclusion based on the AMA guides but he acknowledged the guides may not always cover the full range of frequencies, especially those used in normal conversation. He used another method based on frequencies in conversation to figure out just how hearing impaired Lambdin was and determined that he had almost a 20% binaural hearing loss, rather than the .9% that the method used by AMA would have found and said that for this particular case, the AMA guides were not adequate. He said his tests were subjected to peer review and had acceptance among many medical doctors. Doctors who testified for the employer still found he had a .9% binaural hearing impairment using AMA standards but also acknowledged that his hearing loss was more significant at frequencies over 3,000 hertz.
The state Supreme Court ruled that since the trial court accepted Dr. Studtmann’s tests and his conclusion, it was admissible and could be used to determine Lambdin’s award, even though it may not be under the AMA guidelines.