The law of workplace injury has long been based on the idea that workers are human beings with medical conditions, known and unknown. So when a worker suffers an injury on the job the employer pays for the medical bills, time lost and permanent disability the worker has after the injury, as long as the work injury was a “material cause’ of the disability and need for medical services.

In 1990 and 1995, the employers got the Oregon Legislature to pass laws that provided for “combined conditions.” The idea was that the employer could agree to accept responsibility for a condition that included both a preexisting condition, like arthritis, and the effects of a work injury – a “combined condition” – then deny responsibility when the work injury was no longer the “major cause” of the combined condition. When this happened, the employer would have to pay permanent disability compensation only for the part of the worker’s disability that was caused by the work injury.

Employers began arguing that they could use this principle to “apportion” disability payments between preexisting conditions and conditions caused directly by the work injury, without accepting responsibility for a combined condition. But the Oregon Supreme Court decided, on August 8, 2019, that the traditional rule – the employer takes the worker as it finds him – applies if the employer does not explicitly accept a “combined condition.” Disability apportionment is not available, and the employer must pay full disability compensation unless it follows the rules for combined conditions.

TCNF partner Jim Coon wrote the “friend of the court” brief with attorney Ted Heus, on behalf of the Oregon Trial Lawyers’ Association.