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The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s determination of disability which was based on the employee’s subjective complaints of pain and her appearance of physical disability during trial. InStericycle, Inc. v. Sonja Patterson, the trial court assigned a 57% permanent partial disability rating for a back injury sustained while loading a truck. On appeal, Stericycle contended that the trial court’s medical-causation and disability determinations were not supported by substantial evidence.
The Court of Appeals first addressed the issue of medical causation, holding that the parties stipulated that medical causation was not an issue before the trial court. The Appeals Court found the technical wording and structure of the stipulations supported the notion that the parties agreed the employee’s injury was caused by the accident. Furthermore, defense counsel did not challenge the trial court’s Order which clearly stated the parties had stipulated that causation was not an issue. As a result, the Appeals Court found no error in the trial court’s interpretation of the stipulation.
The Appeals Court then addressed the trial court’s assignment of a 57% disability rating. The evidence presented at trial indicated the employee’s treating physicians and physical therapists believed she was displaying symptom magnifications, which they define as reports of pain that exceed the objective medical findings. The medical evidence and thorough diagnostic studies provided little explanation for the employee’s pain, and she was given a full work release, without limitations, and a 0% impairment rating.
However, the employee continued to report severe pain and physical disability. At trial, the court noted the employee walked with a significant limp and moved around the courtroom as though she was much older than 44, her actual age. The trial court found the employee’s subjective complaints to be credible in spite of the significant medical evidence that showed otherwise.
In affirming the trial court’s determination of disability, the Appeals Court recognized its duty to uphold a decision that is supported by consideration of the totality of evidence. Though it was in striking contrast to medical evidence, the Appeals Court held that the employee’s subjective reports of pain and physical presentation of disability were sufficient grounds to support the trial court’s determination of disability.
My Two Cents:
This decision is a testament to the power of perceived credibility in workers’ compensation cases. As evidenced in the opinion, a trial court’s confidence in well-informed scientific and medical evidence can be stifled by an employee with a convincing demeanor. As such, there is significant value in developing credibility, or lack thereof, in the eyes of a court.
About the Author
This blog post was written by Trey Cotney, Esq. of Fish Nelson LLC, a law firm dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation matters. Fish Nelson 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 email@example.com or any firm member at 205-332-3430.