NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – A tragic workplace accident changed one man’s life forever. It also took years of him fighting to get the medical care his doctor said he needed.

On October 23, 2015, Dean Hammer was ending his shift at DCP Midstream near Carlsbad, New Mexico. “They were changing out what’s called a vessel gas inlet gas cooler line, Dean had to pull on a chain for a valve. When he did, the whole valve came crashing down on top of him about 15-feet,” said Royce Hoskins, Dean Hammer’s attorney.

Hammer says he remembers pulling on the chain. The last thing he remembers was being loaded onto an ambulance.

Sixty-eight pounds of solid metal hit Hammer’s head that day. His doctor said he sustained spinal cord trauma. Hammer was still able to move his arms and drive at the time. He was also back at work doing a desk job and typing.

But his long journey, with claims through workers’ compensation, would end with him being worse off. “There were only two neurosurgeons in all of New Mexico that would accept New Mexico Workers’ Comp.,” said Hammer.

It took months to find a specialist, almost 10 months before his first surgery, and then more than a year for his second surgery as he waited for Workers’ Comp. approval.

The surgeries Hammer was undergoing weren’t helping either. “So, it was just progressively getting worse,” said Hammer.

Hammer and his doctor pushed for help from Craig Hospital in Colorado which specializes in spinal cord injuries. Workers’ Comp. once again needed to approve it. While Hammer waited, his condition was deteriorating.

It would take from the spring until November to get approval to visit Craig Hospital. The hospital and a second opinion from Dr. Douglas Orndorff both recommended a third surgery in November 2018.

However, after another delay from Workers’ Comp., his surgery was pushed to May of 2019. “I had surgery on May 16th, but at that point, I had already lost most of the functions of my arms. I couldn’t get dressed by myself,” said Hammer.

Hammer and his doctor believe he would still have movement in his arms if he had surgery earlier. “We do know that the longer there is compression on the nerves…there’s going to be less likely for a better recovery,” said Dr. Orndorff.

The New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration mediates and adjudicates claims between employees and their workers’ comp insurance. They can’t talk about specific cases but explained why there are delays. “Neuro particularly, there are not enough providers in the state and at that, it’s a problem getting those providers to accept Workers’ Comp. claims,” said Diana Sandoval-Tapia of New Mexico Workers’ Compensation.

What about the long waits for approval?

“If everything that everyone requested under workers’ Comp. was just paid for, then what would happen is insurance premiums would get so expensive businesses would not want to do business in New Mexico,” said Wayne Farmer, New Mexico Workers’ Compensation ombudsman.

Hammer argues no one should have to wait months for care. He’s now left with his wife taking care of him.

Hammer’s attorney says DCP Midstream’s own investigation found that a pin had not been installed correctly and the company could have installed a safety device to prevent the accident. “Because New Mexico law really doesn’t hold the company that you work for responsible, you can’t actually sue the company even though their own investigation had found that that valve had fallen before,” said Hammer.

Attorney Royce Hoskins says that’s almost impossible. Workers’ Comp. explains why it has to be this way. “So under Workers’ Comp. now, it’s a no-fault system. They don’t have to prove negligence and on the other hand, the employer can’t say it was the employee’s fault and not pay benefits either,” said Farmer.

Hammer’s case was dismissed in August. Hammer says he has been waiting since May for Workers’ Comp. to approve a vehicle modification so he can drive with his foot. Under Workers’ Comp. Hammer will have medical benefits for life.

DCP Midstream sent the following statement:

At DCP Midstream, the safety of our employees, stakeholders, and communities is our top priority. When accidents do happen, we follow our internal policies and procedures to ensure our employees are treated fairly. We carry workers compensation insurance to ensure our employees are covered following an on the job injury. In this case, Mr. Hammer received workers’ compensation benefits.  The court handling Mr. Hammer’s case dismissed his claims against DCP, and the case is now closed.

On Special Assignment