Alabama Court of Appeals Addresses Procedure to Terminate Medical Benefits and Last Injurious Exposure Rule
On August 22, 2014, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals released its opinion in Total Fire Protection, Inc. v Jonathan Jean, affirming the Trial Court’s order denying Total Fire Protection’s Motion to Terminate Medical Benefits based on the Last Injurious Exposure Rule. Jean injured both of his wrists in April 2005 while working for Total Fire Protection (TFP). Jean’s authorized treating physician performed surgery on both of his wrists, including the placement of hardware in the right wrist. Five months later, the Trial Court approved a settlement of indemnity and vocational benefits, with future medical benefits remaining open. After the settlement, Jean went to work for another employer. In June of 2006, TFP filed a Motion to Terminate Medical Benefits, asserting that Jean had developed carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of his job with his subsequent employer, and that TFP was no longer responsible for Jean’s medical treatment under the Last Injurious Exposure Rule. The Trial Court granted TFP’s motion.
In April of 2008, Jean filed a Motion for Relief from the June 2006 Order terminating his medical benefits, seeking to hold TFP responsible for further treatment. The Trial Court granted Jean’s motion, and entered an order reinstating Jean’s medical benefits, and TFP appealed.
On November 13, 2008, the Court of Appeals dismissed TFP’s appeal because it determined that it had been taken from a non-final judgment, since the Trial Court had not adjudicated TFP’s liability for all of the employee’s medical issues, most specifically his alleged carpal tunnel syndrome, and that the Trial Court had not issued findings of fact and conclusions of law in its June 16, 2008 judgment as required under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. After the appeal was dismissed, TFP moved the Trial Court to include findings of fact and conclusions of law in its judgment, which the Trial Court never ruled on. On May 30, 2012, TFP filed another motion to terminate Jean’s medical benefits, asserting identical grounds set out in the 2006 Motion. The parties then deposed the authorized treating physician and submitted his deposition transcript to the Trial Court. On August 9, 2013, the Trial Court entered a judgment finding that there was no conclusive evidence that Jean ever developed carpal tunnel syndrome and that the pain in his right wrist was directly related to the original injury with TFP. The Trial Court Ordered TFP to pay for Jean’s surgery to remove the hardware in his wrist and other treatment related to the original injury. TFP then appealed again, asserting that the Trial Court exceeded its discretion in granting Jean’s Motion for Relief from the June 2006 Order, and the Trial Court had no basis for setting aside that Order.
In its recent opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Trial Court’s decision, stating that the September 2005 settlement became a binding judgment with the same affect as any other final judgment, and that the settlement preserved Jean’s right to future treatment for any injuries sustained in the April 2005 accident. The Court of Appeals further pointed out that those rights could only be extinguished through the procedures set out in the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. §25-5-56 of the Act allows a party to have a settlement vacated within six months after settlement only for fraud, undue influence, or coercion. A settlement may also be set aside on other grounds, as provided in the Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure. However, the Court of Appeals pointed out that TFP did not assert any of the procedural grounds outlined in the Rules of Civil Procedure nor did they assert fraud, undue influence or coercion. The Court noted that this case is the first attempt by an employer to use the Last Injurious Exposure Rule to terminate its agreed liability for future medical expenses via post judgment practice, and that TFP had not been able to cite any case in which such a procedure had been followed or approved. While the 2006 settlement explicitly left the issue of future medical benefits open so that the Court retained jurisdiction over any controversy that might arise as to further treatment, the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act requires that an employer disputing its liability for an injury must file a Complaint so that the issue can be resolved by trial in which both parties have a chance to present evidence. Citing the holding in Ex parte Publix Supermarkets, Inc., the Court noted that just as a trial court may not award an employee medical benefits based on an allegation and a motion, a trial court cannot terminate an employee’s right to medical benefits based on allegations in a motion. The Court of Appeals therefore held that the June 2006 Order terminating Jean’s medical benefits violated Jean’s due process, and was therefore, void.
Turning to TFP’s substantive argument that the Trial Court misapplied the Last Injurious Exposure Rule, the Court held that when an employee experiences expected ongoing symptoms from an original compensable injury as a result of routine physical activities in his subsequent employment, in the absence of evidence of some additional harmful change to the underlying anatomical condition of the employee, those expected ongoing symptoms will be treated as a recurrence of the symptoms from the original injury, and not an aggravation of the original injury. Under those circumstances, the Court found that while the repetitive gripping and grasping in Jean’s new employment increased his pain and swelling in his wrist on a temporary basis, the fact that it did not cause any permanent worsening of his baseline physical condition required a finding that he had experienced a recurrence of the 2006 injury, and not an aggravation or new injury with his subsequent employer.
My Two Cents
This decision provides guidance for employers when there is a dispute as to whether medical treatment continues to be owed. According to this holding, the employer needs to file a Complaint and ask for a trial on the merits rather than filing a motion. In any case where the Last Injurious Exposure Rule applies, the employer would also need to add the subsequent employer as a defendant in the lawsuit.
About the Author
This article was written by Charley M. Drummond, Esq. of Fish Nelson & Holden, LLC. Fish Nelson & Holden is a law firm located in Birmingham, Alabama dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation cases and related liability matters. Drummond and his firm are members of The National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN). The NWCDN is a national and Canadian network of reputable law firms organized to provide employers and insurers access to the highest quality representation in workers’ compensation and related employer liability fields. If you have questions about this article or Alabama workers’ compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or (205) 332-3414.