Michael Preston suffers from a hereditary neurological disorder called paramyoclonus multiplex, which causes involuntary shaking of the head and arms. The shaking tends to become worse when he is under stress. However, when the stress is reduced, his symptoms usually subside.
From 1978 to 1998, Preston worked in the Bath Iron Works Corp. (BIW) shipyard in Bath, Maine. He began work as a rigger, which required him to attach shackles to ship components, often weighing between 100 and 150 tons, so they could be picked up by a crane. In the last six to eight years of his career, Preston spent about half his time as a crane operator, maneuvering cranes that sat on tracks 40 ft above the floor of the assembly area.
During his 20 years at BIW, Preston said he was ridiculed, called derogatory names, and subjected to practical jokes because of the symptoms of his disease. Members of the crew referred to him as "Shake and Bake" and would sometimes try to startle him so his shaking would become more pronounced.
He said this harassment caused stress, which made his symptoms worse. As his shaking increased, he began to worry that he could not safely perform his job.
As his symptoms grew worse, he said his coworkers began to question whether he was a danger to his crew. Preston began to take time off from work to get his symptoms under control. He stopped working altogether in August 1998, on the advice of his doctor, and said his symptoms improved since he stopped working.
When Preston made a claim for benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, BIW argued that the teasing or ridicule at the workplace was minor and that any deterioration in Preston's condition was due to other stressful events, such as struggles with his family life and recurring problems with alcohol abuse.
After a hearing, the administrative-law judge (ALJ) denied him benefits. Preston appealed to the Benefits Review Board, which vacated the ALJ's decision, ruling the ALJ had not determined whether the stress and harassment claimed by Preston had occurred, and sent the case back to the ALJ to make that determination. On remand, the ALJ reversed his earlier decision, finding the work environment at BIW had caused stress that aggravated Preston's shaking, and BIW had not rebutted that finding. He granted workers'comp benefits to Preston.
Bath Iron Works then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which upheld the ruling for Preston. The court noted when a worker's employment aggravates a pre-existing condition, the worker is entitled to benefits for the entire resulting disability. The court also agreed with Preston that he was disabled because he had shown he was unable to return to his job at BIW. BIW also had not demonstrated the availability of suitable alternative employment in his community.
Bath Iron Works
Corp. v. Preston,
380 F.3d 597
(1st Cir. 2004),
U.S. Court of
Aug. 30, 2004.