In Hartman v. St. Bernard Par. Fire Dept, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to expand La. R.S. 23:1221(4)(p) to include benefits for hearing loss resulting from multiple injurious exposures.
Hartman v. St. Bernard Par. Fire Dept – Background
In Hartman v. St. Bernard Par. Fire Dept., 2021 La. LEXIS 725* (La. 03/24/21), the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to extend La. R.S. 23:1221(4)(p) to encompass hearing loss sustained from multiple traumatic events. Therein, Claimant, James Hartman, was employed by the St. Bernard Parish Fire Department. He currently serves as a District Chief. Throughout his employment, Claimant was exposed to injurious levels of noise, which was indicated on subsequent audiograms. At his last audiogram on September 27, 2017, it was opined that repeated exposures to loud noises for extended periods of time were likely a contributing factor to Claimant’s bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.
Claimant filed a Form 1008/Disputed Claim for Compensation seeking permanent partial disability benefits for hearing loss under La. R.S. 23:1221(4)(p). La. R.S. 23:1221(4)(p) provides a remedy for those who sustain “a permanent hearing loss solely due to a single traumatic accident.” Claimant maintained that his hearing loss was compensable under the statute on the basis that the loss was caused by a series of individual traumatic events, each one immediately causing injury. Employer disputed the claim, averring that Claimant’s claim for work-related hearing loss was not covered under the statue, which applies only where the permanent loss is “solely due to a single traumatic accident.”
On December 10, 2019, a judgment was rendered in favor of Employer, dismissing Claimant’s claim. The Office of Workers’ Compensation Judge determined that Claimant’s hearing loss was a cumulative hearing loss that occurred over time as a result of his exposure to injurious noise, and not the result of a single traumatic event. This decision was affirmed by the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Therein, the court looked to the language of the statute, noting that the Act only authorizes payment of permanent partial disability benefits to an employee who suffers hearing loss based “solely” on a “single traumatic accident.” Finding the language of the statute to be clear and unambiguous, the court declined to construe the meaning of the provision expansively to include hearing losses arising from multiple single incidents.
Louisiana Supreme Court’s Ruling
The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the holding of the lower courts. The Court similarly relied upon the canons of statutory interpretation, noting that the inquiry turns upon legislative intent. When the law is clear and unambiguous and its application does not lead to absurd consequences, the law must be applied as written, and no further interpretation is needed. Thus, under the language of the statute, the words are clear and unambiguous. The clear legislative intent expressed in the statute is to provide permanent partial disability benefits to an employee who suffers hearing loss solely due to a single event.
Given that Claimant’s physician opined that Claimant’s repeated exposures to loud noises for extended periods of time is likely a contributing factor, the Court found that adherence to Claimant’s argument would require that court to re-write the language of the statue. It was further noted that if the legislature had intended to extend disability benefits for a series of traumatic events, it could have incorporated such language in the statute. In support of this argument, the Court additionally looked to the legislative history of the statute, noting that, when amended in 1986, the statute was modified to explicitly provide benefits for hearing loss due to a single traumatic event.
Although Claimant’s claim might have proven successful under the original version of the statute, he was precluded by virtue of the amendments. This was likewise reflected in the legislature’s definition of the word “accident,” which excludes any “gradual deterioration or progressive degeneration.”
Therefore, looking to the clear language of the statute, the Court declined to expand the scope of La. R.S. 23:1221(4)(p) and found that Claimant was not entitled to permanent partial disability benefits under same.