On March 31, 2011, the Sixth District Court of Appeals of Ohio issued its decision in Smith v. Lucas County, 2011-Ohio-1548, L-10-1200 (OHCA6). The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision that the injured worker failed to prove a “substantial aggravation” in her request for additional allowance in her workers’ compensation claim.

This decision is a rare interpretation of the 2006 amendment to R.C. 4123.01(C) regarding compensable injuries. The amendment had changed the “aggravation” standard to “substantial aggravation” and nullified the Supreme Court’s decision in Schell v. Globe Trucking, Inc. (1980), 48 Ohio St.3d 1., which had only required an injured worker to show a worsening of their condition due to the injury in order to be considered an aggravation. With the 2006 amendment, “substantial aggravation” was required to be documented by objective diagnostic findings, objective clinical findings or objective test results. Subjective complaints alone were deemed insufficient to support a substantial aggravation.

Within months of the enactment of this amendment, Lisa Smith was injured while entering her workplace while in the employ of Lucas County. Her claim for workers’ compensation benefits was initially recognized, and she then filed a motion to include aggravation of a pre-existing condition in her cervical spine. The Industrial Commission of Ohio denied this request on the basis that it had not met the “substantial aggravation” standard. The injured worker filed an appeal into court, and the trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment due to the injured worker’s failure to provide the statutorily mandated objective findings or results.

While the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s granting of the employer’s motion for summary judgment, it also expounded on the “substantial aggravation” standard. The court held that, if the injured worker had provided sufficient documentation of her symptoms that preceded the injury, substantial aggravation could have been established. It also stated that this evidence would not necessarily require objective “before” and “after” findings or results. The court hinted that any credible “objective evidence,” including records or statements from the injured worker’s prior treating physician, may have sufficed. The court’s comments have left the door open for a fairly broad definition of “objective evidence,” and this will in turn invite more litigation on this issue.