Injury versus Sickness:
A Case Study

While it might seem like it should be easy to determine whether a disabling condition is caused by an injury or sickness, this is not always the case, especially when it comes to repetitive stress injuries.  Under some policies, the difference can be drastic in terms of how long benefits are paid.

One example is the case of Stein v. Paul Revere Life Ins. Co[1]. Dr. Stein was a specialist in interventional radiology who was diagnosed with and eventually unable to work due to spinal stenosis, lumbar osteoarthritis, lumbar spondylosis, and degenerative spondylolisthesis.  Whether or not his condition was an injury or sickness was important in this case because he was eligible to receive full lifetime benefits if his condition was caused by injury (but only a portion of his benefits for life if it was due to sickness).

While he initially filled out his application for benefits, Dr. Stein filled out the sickness portion of the form, and indicated that his occupation exacerbated his condition. However, later, Dr. Stein sought to change this classification of his disability from sickness to injury, claiming that his disabling conditions were actually the result of repetitive stress injuries (caused as a result of having to wear a heavy lead apron as part of his occupation). In support of this claim, Dr. Stein submitted statements from his treating provider and medical journal articles that showed there was evidence of a relationship between wearing leaded aprons and spinal problems.

Paul Revere had three physicians review Dr. Stein’s records, and all concluded that Dr. Stein’s conditions were due to sickness, or at the very least “cannot be ascribed, beyond reasonable doubt, to repetitive stress injury more than any of the many other proposed causes of disc degeneration.” The third reviewing doctor also indicated that the medical file did not indicate that there had ever been an accident. Dr. Stein countered that Paul Revere was misinterpreting the term accident, and failing to consider repetitive stress injuries.

The Court found that Dr. Stein’s arguments were persuasive. They noted that there was not an expectation that he could have known that he was likely to become injured (thus meeting the “accidental bodily injury” requirement of his policy), and that he was suffering from a physical condition resulting from repetitive stress injuries. In finding for Dr. Stein, the Court concluded that he was entitled to a reclassification of his total disability as due to an “injury” and thus eligible for full lifetime benefits.

However, here, the Court did not award Dr. Stein attorney fees, explaining that Dr. Stein himself had originally applied to receive benefits under the “sickness” category and that Paul Revere’s interpretation of its policy language was “reasonable.”

This case highlights the importance of understanding the terms and requirements of your individual policy.  If you have questions on how your policy works or how your claim is being administered, please feel free to reach out to one of our attorneys directly.

Every claim is unique and the discussion above is only a limited summary of the court’s ruling in this case. If you are concerned that your insurer is not evaluating your claim under the proper standard, an experienced disability insurance attorney can help you assess the situation and determine what options, if any, are available.

[1] Stein v. Paul Revere Life Ins., Co., No. CV 21-3546, 2023 WL 2539004 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 16, 2023)


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