Nissans Return-to-Work Offer Inadequate in Comp Case

By Staff Report

Aug. 16, 2011

A factory worker is eligible for additional workers’ compensation benefits because Nissan North America Inc. did not provide her a “meaningful return to work” opportunity, Tennessee’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The case of Alicia D. Howell v. Nissan North America Inc. involved a dispute over benefits entitlement for a night-shift production line worker who required carpal tunnel surgery in 2006 and 2007.

After a doctor released Howell to return to work, she resigned and alleged that the injury affecting her hands did not allow her to keep up with the assembly line work she was provided. Nissan, however, argued that she was provided a meaningful return-to-work opportunity.

In 2008, after working a minimum wage job and still suffering from hand problems, Howell filed a petition under a Tennessee law that allows injured employees to seek reconsideration of awards of permanent partial disability benefits if they are no longer employed by the pre-injury employer at a certain wage, according to court documents.

In such cases, a trial court may award up to six times the employee’s medical impairment rating in additional permanent partial disability benefits if that worker does not receive a “meaningful return to work” offer and as long as the worker does not voluntarily resign or retire.

The law also limits permanent partial disability benefits to 1.5 times an employee’s medical impairment rating if he or she returns to work at a wage equal to or greater than the pre-injury wage.

In reviewing the reconsideration petition, a trial court found that Howell was credible and awarded her a 25 percent impairment rating and additional benefits under the law, saying she did not have a meaningful return to work experience.

A Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel reversed the ruling, finding that Howell’s decision to resign was “unreasonable.”

However, the Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed. It reversed the panel’s ruling and reinstated the trial court’s opinion, finding that Howell still suffered hand problems.

“Ms. Howell testified that her grasp is still impaired and she has trouble holding onto things,” the Tennessee high court ruled last week. “Under these circumstances, the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court’s award of 25 percent permanent partial impairment rating to each upper extremity.”  

Filed by Roberto Ceniceros of Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email


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