Alabama Court of Civil Appeals Reverses Permanent and Total Disability Award as Premature
On August, 8, 2014, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals released its opinion in Fab Arc Steel Supply, Inc. v. Timothy Dodd wherein it reversed a permanent and total disability award. Among the several issues on appeal, the Court considered whether there was enough evidence to support a finding that an L-1 herniation that was asymptomatic for more than a year following the accident was causally related to the accident. The Court also considered whether a determination of permanent disability could be made when the employee was not yet at maximum medical improvement (MMI). In addition, the Court considered whether a termination for misconduct could be considered a constructive refusal of suitable employment for purposes of denying temporary total disability (TTD) benefits. L-1 Herniation On appeal, the employer relied on the testimony of neurosurgeon, Dr. James White. At his deposition, Dr. White testified that he could not connect the herniation to the accident since the symptoms of lower back pain radiating into the lower extremities did not begin for over a year following the accident. In affirming the Trial Court on this issue, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that such a delay in symptoms certainly weakens the inference that a post-accident appearance of an injury is related to an accident. However, the Court relied on the fact that a herniation is the type of injury that results from trauma, that late symptoms did not rule out the accident as the cause, and that no doctor attributed the herniation to any other cause such as a degenerative condition. MMI Since the employer denied that the L-1 herniation was related to the accident, it refused to provide any of the recommended treatment associated with the injury. Dr. White testified that he recommended surgery and/or injections. At trial, the employee testified that he wanted to have the surgery. On appeal, the employer asserted that, if the herniation was determined to be related, then the employee could not be considered to be at MMI and, thus, any determination of permanent disability was premature. The Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the permanent and total disability award. The Court further ordered that the recommended treatment be provided and that the issue of permanent disability be readdressed once the employee was placed at MMI. Constructive Refusal of Suitable Employment At trial, the employer presented evidence that the employee was terminated due to insubordination and argued that his conduct amounted to a constructive refusal of suitable employment. The employer took the position that it should not be responsible for paying TTD benefits when it made a job available that fell within the physical limitations assigned by the treating physician but then the employee basically got himself fired. The Trial Court determined that the employer's reasons for terminating the employee were without merit. The Court of Civil Appeals declined to reverse the Trial Court on that determination and, therefore, could not reverse the determination that TTD was owed. My Two Cents: Although the Court of Appeals refused to reverse the Trial Court on the TTD issue, it did not assert that the "constructive refusal of suitable employment" argument was improper. This leaves the door open in the future for this argument to be made whenever an employee is fired due to misconduct. ________________________________________ About the Author This article was written by Michael I. Fish, Esq. of Fish Nelson & Holden LLC, a law firm dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers and insurance carriers in workers' compensation matters. Fish Nelson & Holden is a member of The National Workers' Compensation Network (NWCDN). If you have any questions about this article or Alabama workers' compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or any firm member at 205-332-1448.