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Baltimore County v. Quinlan

Court of Appeals of Maryland

August 26, 2019


         Argued: February 5, 2019

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          Circuit Court for Baltimore County, Case No. 03-C-16-004811, Ruth A. Jakubowski, Judge

         Argued by Suzanne T. Berger, Asst. County Atty. (Suja M. Varghese, Asst. County Atty. and Michael E. Field, County Attorney, Towson, MD), on brief, for Petitioner.

         Argued by P. Matthew Darby (Berrnan, Sobin, Gross, Feldman & Darby LLP, Lutherville, MD; Jeffrey W. Stickle, Bennan, Sobin, Gross, Feldman & Darby LLP, Gaithersburg, MD), on brief, for Respondent.

         Amici Curiae Brief for Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Haword and Prince George’S Counties, Prince George’s County Board of Education and City of Cumberland In Support of Petitioner: Marc P. Hansen, County Attorney, John P. Markovs, Deputy County Attorney, Edward B. Lattner, Chief, Division of Government Operations, Wendy B. Karpel, Associate County Attorney, 101 Monroe Street, Third Floor, Rockville, MD 20850-2058, Gregory J. Swain, Acting County Attorney, Anne Amndel County Office of Law, 2660 Riva Road, 4th Floor, Annapolis, MD 21401, Ileen M. Ticer, Esquire, Law Office of Ileen Ticer, 200 International Circle, Suite 4100, Hunt Valley, MD 21030, Melissa Lambert, County Attorney, Harford County Law Department, 220 South Main Street, Bel Air, MD 21014, Robert W. Burton, Associate General Counsel, Board of Education of Prince George’s County, 14201 School Lane, Room 201F, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772, Rhonda L. Weaver, County Attorney, Andrew L. Murray, Deputy County Attorney, Prince George’s County Office of Law, 1301 McCormick Drive, Suite 4100, Largo, MD 20774.

         Amici Curiae Brief for Maryland Association for Justice in Support of Respondent.: James K. MacAlister, Esquire, Cohen, Snyder, Eisenberg & Katzenberg, PA, 347 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-4327, Dayna Kipnis, Esquire, Kahn, Smith & Collins, PA, 201 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21201.

         Amici Curiae Brief for Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland in Support of Respondent: Ari N. Laric, Esquire, Berman, Sobin, Gross, Feldman & Darby LLP, 1301 York Road, Suite 600, Lutherville, MD 21093.

         Argued before: Barbera, C.J. [*] Greene, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, Sally D., Adkins (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned) JJ.


         Adkins, J.

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          [466 Md. 8] "Definitions of ‘occupational disease’ should always be checked against the purpose for which they were uttered." Arthur Larson, Lex K. Larson & Thomas A. Robinson, 4 Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law § 52.03[1] (Matthew Bender, Rev. Ed. 2019). The purposes of Maryland’s Workers’ Compensation Act are manifold and, like others, involve a recognition of the many competing interests— "to protect capital and labor, employer and employee, and the State against the waste and distress incident to modern industry ...." Liggett & Meyers Tobacco Co. v. Goslin, 163 Md. 74, 80, 160 A. 804 (1932). Still, we bear in mind the sacrifice and special toll certain Maryland workers withstand in the course of their service.

         The present case involves the claim of a veteran paramedic/firefighter regarding degenerative meniscal tears in his right knee. We review two questions, which we have rephrased and consolidated from the questions granted[1] for [466 Md. 9] clarity. First, we

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review whether the trial court erred in denying the County’s motion for summary judgment, and, if not, whether the trial court erred in finding that Quinlan met the statutory requirements set forth in LE § 9-502(d)(1) that his alleged occupational disease was "due to the nature of an employment in which hazards of the occupational disease exist ...." We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the motion for summary judgment; nor did it err in concluding that Quinlan’s degenerative meniscal tears could be classified as an occupational disease.


         In October 2015, Michael Quinlan ("Quinlan") filed a claim with the Workers’ Compensation Commission ("the Commission") against his employer, Baltimore County ("the County"). In it, he asserted that he "developed meniscal tears" in his right knee due to his job duties as a "Paramedic/Firefighter."[2] The Commission held a hearing regarding Quinlan’s claims and evaluated, among other things, whether he "sustain[ed] an occupational disease arising out of and in the course of his employment[.]" Ultimately, the Commission disallowed the claim, concluding that Quinlan "did not sustain an occupational disease of the [r]ight [k]nee degenerative tears arising out [of] and in the course of" his employment.

         Quinlan then sought review in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, requesting a jury trial. In appeals from the Commission, the trial court’s role is to determine whether the [466 Md. 10] Commission "justly considered all of the facts," "exceeded the powers granted to it," or "misconstrued the law and facts applicable in the case decided." Md. Code Ann. (1991, 2016 Repl. Vol.), § 9-745(c)(1)-(3) of the Labor and Employment Article ("LE"). The Commission’s decision is presumed "prima facie correct" and the party challenging the decision has the burden of proof. Id. § 9-745(b)(1)-(2).

         Prior to trial, the County filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Quinlan failed to present evidence that his knee injury was an occupational disease or that it was related to the nature of his employment as a paramedic. Quinlan opposed this motion. Based on the parties’ competing submissions, the trial judge denied the County’s motion for summary judgment concluding that there was "absolutely a material dispute of fact."

         The case proceeded to trial on April 19 and 20, 2017. Quinlan, 51 years old at the time, testified first. He began by describing his occupation and the general duties thereof. Over the course of his career, he had served 29 years as a paramedic, the last 24 with Baltimore County. Typically, his schedule consisted of two 10-hour days

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of work, followed by two 14-hour nights, and four days off. During these four-day shifts, he stated, paramedics generally "run" 26-30 calls, which last 1-2 hours each. Quinlan also described the activities undertaken on a "typical" emergency call that might impact his right knee, including: climbing in and out of emergency vehicles, carrying up to 50 pounds of gear, crouching to address and service patients, administering compressions or other aid, lifting patients onto stretchers and moving stretchers, and taking patients up and down stairs.[3] He also stated that he is "right dominant," meaning he uses his right leg more often during the above tasks.

         Quinlan testified that he started experiencing pain and "clicking" in his right knee in 2014, causing him to seek out a [466 Md. 11] doctor. Although he had seen a doctor in 2005 regarding a knee injury, he did not necessarily see the two phenomena as related. Ultimately, Quinlan underwent surgery to repair his meniscal tears.

         The parties each introduced the same experts before the trial court as they had used before the Commission. Quinlan presented a video deposition of Barbara A. Cochran, M.D. ("Cochran"), a physician with specialties in internal, occupational, psychiatric, and pulmonary medicine. Cochran’s testimony was based on her research, her review of Quinlan’s medical records, and her phone examination of Quinlan, although she never physically examined him. Cochran said that Quinlan had a tear in both his medial and lateral menisci. These tears "extend[ed] to the articular surface of the tibia," which Cochran identified as important because that "is where the bones come together" which can lead to osteoarthritis.

         Cochran described Quinlan’s meniscal tears as "part of the continuum of osteoarthritis." Accordingly, she focused on repetitive use as the primary risk factor for his knee issues. She explained that repetitively using a knee with meniscal tears can lead to osteoarthritis because such use leads to inflammation in the joint that is not healed before its next use. She described this process as a cycle of inflammation, followed by partial healing, followed by inflammation, and so on. Alternatively, the osteoarthritis can contribute to degeneration and tears in the meniscus in a similar manner. She also addressed other risk factors for degenerative knee issues, such as gender, age, weight, genetics, and prior injury. Quinlan was five feet and nine inches tall and weighed approximately 235 pounds. Cochran stated that gender, age, and weight were unlikely to be the primary factors here because Quinlan’s knee damage was confined to his right knee. Moreover, she opined that Quinlan’s 2005 knee injury likely had no relation to his osteoarthritis based on the symptoms and complaints he presented at the time of his injury. She did not have enough information to address genetics.

         [466 Md. 12] Cochran also testified about the relationship between Quinlan’s degenerative knee tears and his occupation as a paramedic. Specifically, she pointed to a study that concluded that paramedic/firefighters have a "relative risk" of developing knee osteoarthritis of 2.93 compared to the general population, meaning that there are 293 cases of degenerative knee tears in paramedic/firefighters for every 100 cases in the general population. Based on this study and her examinations, she concluded that Quinlan’s "essential job functions ...

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which include considerable repetitive kneeling, bending, [and] stress on the knee, [were] the cause of his knee ...

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