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Reynolds v. General Motors Corp.

decided: June 14, 1956.


Freund, Conford and Schettino. The opinion of the court was delivered by Freund, S.j.a.d.


[40 NJSuper Page 485] On September 13, 1951 a chest X-ray of the petitioner George Reynolds, taken by the Medical Department of his employer, the respondent General

Motors Corporation, revealed advanced pulmonary tuberculosis. As a result the petitioner, claiming that he had contracted the disease in the course of his employment for the respondent, sought workmen's compensation. He prevailed in the Division of Workmen's Compensation and in the County Court, although each award was premised upon a different theory of causation. The respondent appeals, asserting that both tribunals were mistaken.

The petitioner began his employment with the respondent in 1942. Pursuant to the respondent's regular medical program for its employees, three X-rays of the petitioner's chest had been taken between 1942 and 1947, all of which were negative as to the presence of tuberculosis.

The petitioner worked for the respondent as an "internal grinder," intermittently from August 1942 to November 1946, and continuously thereafter. His work consisted of grinding steel bearings or races, held in a machine of which the rapidly revolving grinding stone was composed of metallic oxides held together with a vitrified ceramic bond and was cooled by a solution which continually poured over the wheel, causing spray. Normally such grinding operation used up between six and fifteen grinding stones each day. During the grinding operation the operator's face was within 18 inches of the grinding stone which, revolving at high speed, threw off dust which, mixed with the spray from the cooling solution, not only settled upon the petitioner's clothes and body but was inhaled by him, causing him to blow his nose frequently, sneeze, cough and expectorate, and made his throat raspy. Admittedly, some face masks were provided, but their use was not required and the petitioner did not wear one.

Dust counts made as late as April 1951 revealed that the dust concentration in the room where the petitioner worked was within the permissible limits for that type of dust as specified by the New Jersey Department of Health.

The petitioner testified that during the spring of 1951 his cough became worse, particularly when he was at work, and that he began to feel tired, lost weight, was short of

breath, did not sleep properly and occasionally had night sweats. On September 6, 1951 he had chills and fever while at work. He went to the plant hospital where the nurse diagnosed his ailment as a touch of the grippe and told him to go home. That evening he was treated by his family physician. He remained at home until September 13 when he returned to work. There he was examined by the plant physician, who had X-rays taken of his chest which disclosed that he had pulmonary tuberculosis. Upon the direction of his family doctor, he was hospitalized on September 20. In December a thoracoplasty was performed upon him, seven ribs on his right side were removed and his right lung collapsed. He remained in the hospital until October 14, 1953.

It is undisputed that two of the petitioner's fellow-employees also developed tuberculosis, one discovered in October 1951, the other in April 1952. The petitioner's claim for compensation was based upon alternative theories of causation: -- either contraction of the disease through contact with fellow-employees, or contraction through "lighting-up" of a latent tubercular condition by reason of irritation caused by the inhalation of dust on the job. The Deputy Director granted an award on the former theory; the County Court on the latter.

The medical proofs are in sharp conflict. Dr. Lieb, the petitioner's expert, concluded that a causal relation existed between the petitioner's disease and his work. He predicated this conclusion upon finding a "preexisting latent tuberculosis focus" in the petitioner's lungs, which he stated was activated by the inhalation of dust over a period of several years in the course of his employment. He testified that at first there was irritation of the bronchial tubes, that the petitioner "developed a chemical or irritative bronchitis from the inhalation of dust," which persisted and increased in intensity, finally resulting in the reactivation of the preexisting latent or quiescent tuberculosis.

The respondent's experts agreed that the X-rays of the petitioner taken before 1951 all indicated ...

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