Rakestraw v. General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc.

Decision Date30 July 2003
Docket NumberDocket No. 120996, Calendar No. 10.
Citation469 Mich. 220,666 N.W.2d 199
PartiesE. Wayne RAKESTRAW, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. GENERAL DYNAMICS LAND SYSTEMS, INC., Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Libner, VanLeuven, Evans, Portenga & Slater, P.C. by John A. Braden, Muskegon, for the plaintiff-appellee.

Martin L. Critchell, Detroit, for the defendant-appellant.

Gerald M. Marcinkoski, Birmingham, for the Michigan Self-Insurers' Association and the Michigan Manufacturers' Association, amici curiae.

Daryl Royal Dearborn, for the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association, amicus curiae.


Plaintiff sought, and the magistrate awarded, benefits under the Worker's Disability Compensation Act, M.C.L. § 418.301 et seq., on the basis of aggravation of the symptoms of a nonwork-related condition. We hold that a claimant attempting to establish a compensable, work-related1 injury must prove that the injury is medically distinguishable from a preexisting nonwork-related condition in order to establish the existence of a "personal injury" under § 301(1). Accordingly, we remand this case to the Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


The facts in this case are not contested. At the time plaintiff began working for defendant in 1996, he had a preexisting neck condition that was asymptomatic.2 According to plaintiff, his work for defendant caused his neck pain to return and increase.

The magistrate awarded plaintiff benefits for the aggravation of his symptoms. Of special note, the magistrate held that plaintiff suffered from "post surgical changes" of the cervical spine, but that these "conditions were not caused by his employment with [d]efendant." Furthermore, the magistrate held that the employment did not contribute to or aggravate the preexisting condition:

Mr. Rakestraw's pathological postsurgical changes and spondylosis of the cervical spine were not contributed to, aggravated or accelerated in a significant manner as a result of his work activities. The medical proofs would not sustain a finding of a change in pathology related to any work injury or work activities. [Emphasis added.]

However, the magistrate held that plaintiff's employment aggravated the symptoms of the preexisting neck condition.3 The magistrate determined that plaintiff was partially disabled as a result of the aggravated symptoms and granted an open award of benefits. The WCAC reluctantly affirmed on the basis of Court of Appeals authority. However, the WCAC suggested that the Court of Appeals case law, which the WCAC was required to follow, did not properly follow this Court's precedent. The Court of Appeals denied leave to appeal. Defendant sought leave to appeal with this Court, which was granted.


This Court's review of a decision by the WCAC is limited. In the absence of fraud, we must consider the WCAC'S findings of fact conclusive if there is any competent evidence in the record to support them. M.C.L. § 418.861a(14); Mudel v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., 462 Mich. 691, 701, 614 N.W.2d 607 (2000). However, questions of law in a worker's compensation case are reviewed de novo. DiBenedetto v. West Shore Hosp., 461 Mich. 394, 401-402, 605 N.W.2d 300 (2000); M.C.L. §§ 418.861, 418.861a(14). Likewise, questions requiring statutory interpretation are questions of law that are reviewed de novo. Frank W Lynch Co. v. Flex Technologies, Inc., 463 Mich. 578, 583, 624 N.W.2d 180 (2001); People v. Rodriguez, 463 Mich. 466, 471, 620 N.W.2d 13 (2000).

In interpreting a statute, our obligation is to discern the legislative intent that may reasonably be inferred from the words actually used in the statute. White v. Ann Arbor, 406 Mich. 554, 562, 281 N.W.2d 283 (1979). A bedrock principle of statutory construction is that "a clear and unambiguous statute leaves no room for judicial construction or interpretation." Coleman v. Gurwin, 443 Mich. 59, 65, 503 N.W.2d 435 (1993). When the statutory language is unambiguous, the proper role of the judiciary is to simply apply the terms of the statute to the facts of a particular case. Turner v. Auto Club Ins. Ass'n, 448 Mich. 22, 27, 528 N.W.2d 681 (1995). In addition, words used by the Legislature must be given their common, ordinary meaning. M.C.L. § 8.3a.


M.C.L. § 418.301(1) states in pertinent part:

An employee, who receives a personal injury arising out of and in the course of employment by an employer who is subject to this act at the time of the injury, shall be paid compensation as provided in this act.... [Emphasis added.]

Under the clear and unambiguous language of the statute, an employee must establish that he has suffered "a personal injury arising out of and in the course of employment" in order to be eligible for compensation benefits.


Defendant maintains that the magistrate erred in awarding benefits because the pain plaintiff suffered was not a "personal injury" under the act.

On several occasions, this Court has held that symptoms such as pain, standing alone, do not establish a personal injury under the statute. Rather, a claimant must also establish that the symptom complained of is causally linked to an injury that arises "out of and in the course of employment" in order to be compensable.4

The difference between a "personal injury" under § 301(1) and symptoms of a preexisting injury or illness that do not constitute a compensable injury was explored in Kostamo v. Marquette Iron Mining Co., 405 Mich. 105, 274 N.W.2d 411 (1979). Kostamo was a consolidation of cases in which the five plaintiffs either suffered a heart attack or experienced chest pain and sought compensation. Regarding plaintiffs Fiszer and Hannula, the board determined that they had not suffered heart attacks. Rather, these plaintiffs were determined to suffer chest pain as a result of nonwork-related arteriosclerosis. In finding compensation unavailable to them, the Kostamo Court stated:

The workers' compensation law does not provide compensation for a person afflicted by an illness or disease not caused or aggravated by his work or working conditions. Nor is a different result required because debility has progressed to the point where the worker cannot work without pain or injury. Accordingly, compensation cannot be awarded because the worker may suffer heart damage which would be work-related if he continued to work. Unless the work has accelerated or aggravated the illness, disease or deterioration and, thus, contributed to it, or the work, coupled with the illness, disease or deterioration, in fact causes an injury, compensation is not payable. [Id. at 116, 274 N.W.2d 411.5]

In Miklik v. Michigan Special Machine Co., 415 Mich. 364, 329 N.W.2d 713 (1982), the plaintiff suffered from many preexisting conditions, including rheumatic heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and liver damage. He applied for compensation benefits, claiming that the stress of his job caused hypertension and aggravated and accelerated his arteriosclerosis and rheumatic heart disease. He was determined to be totally disabled. Initially, this Court noted that a successful claimant must "establish by a preponderance of the evidence both a personal injury and a relationship between the injury and the workplace." Id. at 367, 329 N.W.2d 713. Turning to the merits of the case, this Court held that arteriosclerosis, standing alone, was insufficient to establish a compensable injury:

However, even though arteriosclerosis alone does not justify compensation, neither does it bar compensation. Heart damage, such as would result from a heart attack, is compensable if linked by sufficient evidence to the workplace....

The WCAB, upon remand, accepted medical testimony that Miklik's health problems were job-related, and then found them to be compensable. The board failed to follow Kostamo's direction that in order for there to be compensation there first must be an injury. It is impossible to turn arteriosclerosis into compensable heart damage merely by labeling it so. The board's opinion, worded in conclusory terms, ignored this premise of Kostamo. Testimony, at most, showed the progressive effects of arteriosclerosis, not separate heart damage. [Id. at 368-369, 329 N.W.2d 713 (emphasis added).]

In Farrington v. Total Petroleum, Inc., 442 Mich. 201, 501 N.W.2d 76 (1993), this Court reviewed the 1980 legislative amendments that added the "significant manner" test to recovery of benefits for mental disabilities and conditions of the aging process. The Court cited the Kostamo holding, stating that a claimant must prove "[t]hat the alleged cardiac injury resulting from work activities went beyond the manifestation of symptoms of the underlying disease. The heart injury must be significantly caused or aggravated by employment considering the totality of all the occupational factors and the claimant's health circumstances and nonoccupational factors." Id. at 216-217, 501 N.W.2d 76 (emphasis added).

Thus, several cases from this Court have articulated the principle that, where an employee claims to have suffered an injury whose symptoms are consistent with a preexisting condition, the claimant must establish the existence of a work-related injury that extends "beyond the manifestation of symptoms" of the underlying preexisting condition. Id. at 216, 501 N.W.2d 76.


Despite the holdings in Kostamo; Miklik, and Farrington, plaintiff cites a body of case law developed in the Court of Appeals holding that aggravation of the symptoms of a preexisting condition alone constitutes a compensable injury under § 301(1).6 The rationale of this line of Court of Appeals cases appears to emanate from Carter v. Gen. Motors Corp., 361 Mich. 577, 106 N.W.2d 105 (1960).

In Carter, the plaintiff had a personality disorder that made him more susceptible to psychotic breakdowns....

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