Alabama Judges can Assign Disability Ratings that are Lower than the Impairment Rating Assigned by the Doctor
On July 19, 2013, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals released its opinion in Gore v. Lafarge North America, Inc. wherein it addressed the trial judge’s ability to assign a disability rating that is lower than the impairment rating issued by the authorized treating physician. In Alabama, a judge is not limited by the impairment rating when assigning a disability rating. Although it is common for trial judges to use the impairment rating assigned by the doctor as a minimum, it is unusual to see a disability rating that is lower than the impairment rating.
In Gore, the plaintiff claimed that he was permanently and totaling disabled as a result of rocks falling on him while at work injuring his neck and other parts of his body. Initial treatment provided by the employer did not reveal any injuries and the plaintiff was returned to work at light duty and given pain medication. The plaintiff then went to see his own doctor but did not indicate he had treated with the employer’s doctor. As a result, the plaintiff secured pain mediation from both doctors which was an obvious credibility issue. Discovery later revealed that, prior to the accident, the plaintiff had been off of work for other injuries, including his neck, and was receiving narcotic pain medication up to 4 days prior to the alleged accident. During that period of time he was also off work as a result of being convicted for doctor shopping to secure multiple prescriptions for Xanax. The evidence at trial also revealed that the plaintiff was not truthful in regards to prior neck problems. The plaintiff testified that he never had prior neck pain but his supervisor testified that the plaintiff had been off work, or unable to perform his work, on numerous occasions complaining about his neck, back, shoulder and foot. Medical records also revealed prior medical treatment for back and neck pain. The plaintiff ultimately underwent surgery performed by the authorized treating physician to remove several disk and bone spurs as a result of arthritis at almost every level and a pinched nerve. The initial fusion was unsuccessful and a revision was performed. He was ultimately placed at MMI with light duty restrictions and given a 20% impairment rating to the body. The authorized treating physician testified that, based on the provided history, the accident did cause the pinched nerve, however, it was very challenging to separate degenerative from acute.
The trial Court found that the plaintiff was suffering from similar symptoms prior to the accident evidenced by short term disability 3 times over a 5 year period and narcotic pain medication as recently as 2 months before the accident. The trial Court also questioned the plaintiff’s credibility based on inconsistent testimony regarding prior injuries and his criminal convictions for DUI in the past and the conviction for doctor shopping. The trial Court found that the plaintiff proved that he had an on the job injury but found that it only resulted in a permanent partial disability. The trial Court opined that the plaintiff’s past medical condition accounted for some of the disability and the degenerative conditions could have resulted in the current injuries and/or need for treatment. As a resulted, the judge reduced the doctor’s 20% impairment rating to a 10% disability rating to account for the preexisting condition causing some of the current disability and not the on the job accident.
On appeal the plaintiff argued that the preexisting condition should not have been considered because he was performing his job normally at the time of the accident. He argued that because the accident was one factor of the disability he met his burden of proof since the accident did not have to be the sole cause of the permanent and total disability. The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals agreed that this met the standard for medical causation but stated that the extent that the accident contributed to the disability was the issue. The Appeals Court stated that the preexisting neck injury was not latent or asymptomatic and, therefore, the preexisting condition was the cause of a portion of the disability and was in fact affecting his ability to work at times prior to the accident. The Court of Appeals ruled that the evidenced supported the Trial Court’s finding that a portion of the 20% disability issued by the doctor was not the result of the accident but was the result of the preexisting degenerative condition.
Of note, the Court of Appeals stated that the evidence was sufficient to deny benefits altogether because of the plaintiff’s inability to work on various occasions leading up to the accident but the employer did not cross appeal that issue.
The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial Court for a determination on whether the plaintiff suffered any loss of ability to earn because he had not been able to return to work following his injuries.
My Two Cents:
Just because the preexisting condition does not prevent the employee from performing his job prior to the accident do not ignore it. If the preexisting condition is causing, or partially causing, the disability complained of, the Judge can attribute some of the disability to the preexisting condition, and reduce the disability attributed to the work injury.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The article was written by Joshua G. Holden, Esq. a Member of Fish Nelson, LLC, a law firm dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation and related liability matters. Mr. Holden is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating an attorney can receive. He is the current Chair of the ABA/ TIPS Workers’ Compensation and Employers’ Liability Committee. He is also on the Board of the Alabama Workers Compensation Organization and a member of numerous other associations and organizations. Holden has been selected as a "Rising Star" by Super Lawyers.
Holden 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 205-332-1428.