Occupational Hearing Loss (OHL) is one of the most prevalent work-related illnesses in the United States with 22 million workers exposed to hazardous noise each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
With approximately $242 million spent annually on workers’ compensation claims for disabilities arising from hearing loss, this number is set to increase in light of a new favorable holding for Louisiana employers with industrial workplace settings.
The Louisiana Supreme Court held in Arrant et al v. Graphic Packaging International, Inc. et al that defendant Graphic Packaging, which owns and operates a paper mill, box plant, and carton plant in West Monroe, Louisiana, is immune from suits in tort brought by its employees for noise-induced hearing loss injuries sustained from working around industrial machinery. The Supreme Court held that these injuries fell within the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Act (“LWCA”) definitions of a covered “personal injury by accident” or an “occupational disease.”
“Arrant is the symbolic shot heard round the world in Louisiana when it comes to noise induced hearing loss suits.”
The Court heard testimony from expert audiologists that when high levels of energy enter the cochlea of the ear “it damages and destroys that row of hair cells in that particular part of the ear.” There is an “immediate injury to the inner ear” though the effect only becomes gradually perceptible over time and only with repeated or continuous exposures to high levels of noise. As such, the Court held that traumatic injury to the inner ear qualified as a personal injury by accident under the LWCA.
The Court also found that “hazardous levels of industrial noise . . . was a condition very characteristic of and peculiar to the particular employment of working in a paper mill or box plant” and as such was an occupational disease under the LWCA.
The legal effect of Arrant is that suits against an employer for noise induced hearing loss injuries are now within the exclusive remedy provision of the LWCA. The practical effect of Arrant is that noise-induced hearing loss suits against employers are coming to an end. While technically the LWCA provides an exception for intentional acts, this is a difficult burden to meet. Were plaintiffs to amend their petition to assert an intentional tort against their employers, they would have to prove that the employers either desired that their employees sustain noise-induced hearing loss, or were substantially certain that such injuries were going to occur from their work around noise producing machinery inside their facilities.
Simply, Arrant is the symbolic ‘shot heard round the world’ in Louisiana when it comes to noise induced hearing loss suits.