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Hooray for the Court of Appeals

J. Steven Rodenberg

The Court of Appeals issued an opinion favorable to employers and insurance carriers in Harrison v. Owen Steel Company, Inc. filed on January 10, 2018.

In September 2008, Harrison suffered an admitted workplace injury to his neck while working for Owen Steel Company. Owen Steel provided medical treatment through Dr. Holbrook, who performed a cervical spine fusion in November 2009. After the surgery, Harrison returned to work light duty.

Harrison was then involved in a motorcycle accident in April 2010.

In July 2010, Dr. Holbrook released Harrison at MMI with a 50 lb. lifting restriction and a 25% impairment to the whole person. Harrison then returned to work full time as a welder.

In early October 2010, Harrison reinjured his neck at work. Harrison initially received treatment at an emergency room, then followed up with Dr. Sweet. Dr. Sweet knew of Harrison’s previous surgery by Dr. Holbrook. At a follow up visit two weeks after the initial visit, Dr. Sweet re-evaluated Harrison and recommended against another surgery. Dr. Sweet released Harrison at MMI with a 15% whole person impairment rating and allowed Harrison to return to work with a 30 lb. lifting restriction.

Harrison returned to work light duty for the entirety of 2011. During that time, Harrison filed a workers’ compensation claim for his 2010 workplace injury. Owen Steel settled that claim in August 2011 after which Harrison transitioned back to work as a welder.

In February 2012, Harrison suffered another non-work-related injury.

On April 18, 2013, Harrison filed a Form 50 seeking compensation for injuries sustained in his 2008 workplace injury. Harrison was also involved in two motor vehicle accidents subsequent to the filing of his Form 50, one in July 2013 and one in March 2014.

The single commissioner found Harrison’s claim was barred by the doctrine of laches, but also found that even if laches did not bar Harrison’s claim, it would be impossible to determine Harrison’s entitlement to permanent partial disability benefits because of intervening accidents. The single commissioner also found that Harrison had not met his burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence what his causally related condition was as a result of his 2008 workplace injury. The Appellate Panel affirmed.

Initially, the Court of Appeals found that laches (neglect for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time, under circumstances affording opportunity for diligence, to do what in law should have been done) does not apply.

The Court of Appeals then noted that it was unable find any cases similar to the unique posture of this case—an employee who suffers two workplace injuries to the same body part, receives compensation for the second injury first, suffers additional non-workplace injuries to the same body part, then seeks compensation for the first workplace injury. (This procedural posture was purposeful. Harrison’s former counsel sought compensation for the second injury before seeking compensation for the first injury in order to circumvent Sections 42-9-150 to 42-9-170 which, if Harrison had received compensation for the first injury before the second injury, would have entitled Owen Steel to credit for the permanent disability benefits it would have paid for Harrison’s first injury).

The Court of Appeals stated that for a claimant to be entitled to additional permanent partial disability compensation for a second injury when the claimant has already received permanent partial disability compensation for a previous injury to the same body part, the evidence must show the degree of disability attributable only to his second injury in order to avoid double compensation.

In this case, shortly after authorized treating physician Dr. Holbrook determined Harrison reached MMI for his 2008 injury and assigned a 25% whole person impairment rating, Harrison reinjured his cervical spine at work and was examined by Dr. Sweet. Dr. Sweet acknowledged Harrison’s spinal fusion and 50 lb. lifting restriction by Dr. Holbrook. Dr. Sweet determined Harrison reached MMI for his 2010 injury and assigned Harrison a 15% whole person impairment rating. Harrison then settled his 2010 claim based on Dr. Sweet’s report.

The Court of Appeals found Harrison was not entitled to any additional permanent partial disability benefits as a result of the 2008 injury. The Court of Appeals went on to note that the second doctor’s (Dr. Sweet) finding of a lesser impairment percentage reflected the employee’s current condition after both injuries. Therefore, Harrison was only entitled to the compensation he received for his second injury because the 15% impairment represents the totality of his impairment resulting from his 2008 and 2010 workplace injuries.

The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the purpose of workers’ compensation law is to compensate a worker for injuries occurring in the course and scope of employment and that the law must be construed in favor of coverage. However, that policy is not implicated in this case because Harrison received compensation for the combined effect of his workplace injuries. Moreover, additional compensation is not warranted considering our courts’ express proscription against double recovery. We doubt the legislature intended to allow an employee, who has suffered successive injuries to the same body part close together in time, to circumvent the operation of statutes entitling an employer to credit for previously paid permanent disability benefits by seeking compensation for the second injury before seeking compensation for the first injury. Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Panel’s decision denying Harrison’s claim for partial disability benefits associated with his 2008 workplace injury.

This is a very nice decision to start 2018. Only time will tell whether this is a trend to be followed throughout 2018 by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. We can only hope.