Michael F. Roessler
38 Campbell L. Rev. 211 (2016)
ABSTRACT. Individuals hurt on the job face potential uncertainty about their eligibility for benefits under the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act. Whereas the state’s courts historically interpreted the law as allowing an injured worker to prove loss of wage-earning capacity following a work injury without any regard to overall economic conditions, the North Carolina Supreme Court recently announced the demise of this absolutist rule in Medlin v. Weaver Cooke Construction, LLC and articulated a new rule allowing overall economic conditions to affect an injured worker’s claim of disability, at least in some circumstances.
The supreme court was wrong to adopt this change, as this Article explains. That said, the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Industrial Commission, the administrative agency charged with administering the workers’ compensation laws, are bound by the supreme court’s decision. The second purpose of this Article, therefore, is to fill a significant gap left by the supreme court’s recent decision by addressing when and how injured workers must concern themselves with the possible effects of overall economic conditions on their post-injury ability to earn wages. These issues went unaddressed by the supreme court in Medlin, and this Article attempts to fill in these details by suggesting a burden-shifting framework to govern adjudication of disputes over whether economic conditions—and not a work injury—are the cause of an individual’s loss of wage-earning capacity. This framework is consistent with the supreme court’s decision in Medlin, but also prevents the workers’ compensation system from becoming unduly hostile to people hurt on the job and in need of help.