Appeal by plaintiff and defendants Groves Thread Company and General Accident Insurance Company from the North Carolina Industrial Commission. Opinion and Award entered 10 December 1980. Heard in the Court of Appeals 8 January 1982.
Arnold, Judge. Judges Martin (Harry C.) and Wells concur.
Plaintiff was born in 1926 and began working in textile mills at the age of seventeen. For the next 23 years, he worked almost exclusively for Textiles, Inc., in the twisting departments of various cotton mills. In 1966, plaintiff was employed by defendant Groves Thread Company, another cotton processor, and worked as a twisting department employee for about six months during the period between 4 November 1966 and 2 August 1967. For the next six years, plaintiff was employed by defendant United Spinners Company, a synthetics processor.
While plaintiff had begun to experience breathing problems as early as 1958, he did not become disabled for purposes of the Act until 1973 since his earning capacity was not impaired until that date. Watkins v. Central Motor Lines, 279 N.C. 132, 181 S.E.2d 588 (1971). Expert medical testimony indicated that plaintiff was suffering from symptoms of byssinosis, a lung disease associated with cotton dust. Plaintiff's lung condition was aggravated by cigarette smoking and by the dusty work environment at United Spinners to such an extent that the examining physician estimated plaintiff's condition was attributable about 50% to cigarette smoking, about 40% to cotton dust, and about 10% to synthetic dust and bronchial infections.
The deputy commissioner entered judgment and award for plaintiff, holding defendant Groves Thread Company liable for plaintiff's full disability as his employer at the time of his last injurious exposure. Plaintiff and Groves Thread appealed to the Full Commission, which adopted the deputy commissioner's award.
Plaintiff's first assignment of error concerns the Commission's determination that his last injurious exposure occurred while he worked for Groves Thread Company. Plaintiff
notes that G.S. 97-57 assigns liability to the employer in whose employment the plaintiff suffered his "last injurious exposure" without regard for the length of time of that employment or the degree of injury suffered in that employment. He argues that the Commission's finding of fact no. 14, that ". . . there is no indication that plaintiff's byssinosis was contributed to or augmented to the slightest degree by exposure to only synthetic dust . . . ," is unsupported by the evidence. Plaintiff contends that the Commission should have found his last injurious exposure to have been his employment at United Spinners, not his earlier employment at Groves Thread Company.
We agree that there is uncontroverted medical evidence in the record establishing that plaintiff's exposure to synthetic dust "played a part in his current condition." However, we find this error harmless as a matter of law since the record reveals no evidence whatsoever that employment in synthetics is associated with any occupational lung disease.
Plaintiff's confusion as to the basis for assigning employer liability where several factors have contributed to the plaintiff's disability is understandable. He has correctly stated the statutory rule that where an employee becomes disabled due to an occupational disease, and this disability is the cumulative result of multiple employments,
This was the rule under which the Commission assigned liability for plaintiff's disability to Groves Thread Company in spite of evidence that plaintiff was already suffering from byssinosis symptoms when he went to work for Groves, and that plaintiff was employed by Groves for only a few months, during which time he suffered relatively little injurious exposure. Inequitable as this result may be on the facts of this case, the rule serves to eliminate the need for complex and expensive litigation of the issue of relative contribution by each of several employments to a plaintiff's occupational disease. The possibility that some employers may bear a disproportionate share of the total liability for occupational disease is a problem for the legislature, not the
courts, to consider. See Haynes v. Feldspar, 222 N.C. 163 at 170, 22 ...