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Written by: Lindsay Underwood
The North Carolina Court of Appeals issued a new decision concerning medical treatment, and what evidence is necessary to prove causation and establish compensability.
In Mahone v. Home Fix Custom Remodeling, the claimant worked for a home remodeling company. On July 24, 2018, the claimant climbed into the attic of a potential customer to take measurements for an estimate and the floor beneath him collapsed. The claimant fell twenty feet and landed in the staircase area of the lower level of the home. He suffered severe injuries to his cervical and thoracic spine, and fractured ribs on his left side. When EMS responded to the injury, the claimant was unconscious. The claimant underwent an immediate surgery for his spinal injuries. Following surgery, a cognitive screening and mental assessment was completed to evaluate for a possible traumatic brain injury (TBI). It was determined inpatient neuropsychological services were not warranted, though the claimant was provided with verbal and written information regarding treatment for a mild TBI. On November 2, 2018, Dr. Lance Goetz wrote a letter stating the claimant was hospitalized and under his care. In that letter, Dr. Goetz stated the claimant had incurred a traumatic brain injury with loss of consciousness. Dr. Goetz was not deposed as part of the case, and the physician who was deposed did not provide an opinion on the TBI or causation either in his records or during his testimony.
Defendants denied the claim on the basis that there was no employer/employee relationship. At the Deputy Commissioner level, the main issues presented were whether the claimant was permanently and totally disabled, and what attendant care the claimant was entitled to. Following the hearing, Defendants accepted compensability of the spine, rib fractures, and hematoma of the parietal bone. The TBI was not accepted. The Deputy Commissioner found that claimant had failed to present evidence regarding how many hours per day he required attendant care, or the appropriate rate of care. Further, it was not yet possible to determine whether the claimant met the requirements for permanent total disability. The claimant appealed to the Full Commission. The Commission entered an Opinion and Award finding the claimant had not presented sufficient medical evidence of causation linking his TBI to the July 24, 2018 incident, and, thus, the claimant was not entitled to medical compensation for the treatment of his TBI. The Commission found the claimant required attendant care but there was insufficient evidence in the record on which to base such an award. Both parties appealed to the Court of Appeals.
The Court ultimately found the Commission applied the incorrect legal standard in denying that the claimant’s TBI was not compensable. The Court opined the Commission erred in stating that the claimant was required to present expert testimony, either at a hearing or deposition, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the TBI was causally related to the accident. The Court held the appropriate standard is that the claimant is required to present expert opinion evidence, not necessarily in the form of testimony, that it is likely that the accident caused the claimant’s injury. Thus, the letter written by Dr. Goetz in which he opined that the claimant’s TBI was likely the result of his July 24, 2018 incident was sufficient to establish causation. The Court reversed the Commission’s Opinion and Award with respect to the compensability of the claimant’s TBI and remanded to the Commission to make findings and conclusions applying the correct standards of proof.
Though we do not have the final decision on remand, this case is a good reminder that if you want to contest compensability or causation of a specific aspect of the claim, you must have evidence to combat the claimant’s evidence, even if said evidence is in the form of a letter or a medical record. In this case, it was likely assumed that since Dr. Goetz did not testify, and did not provide an opinion specifically to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that his causation opinion would not be sufficient. The Court of Appeals clearly disagreed, and specifically noted that testimony is not required by the Court to establish causation. All that is necessary is opinion evidence. In the event you are presented with a medical report or correspondence from a physician, in which it appears causation is established, even if not to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, it is a necessary next step for defendants to obtain counter evidence, and take deposition testimony of both the claimant’s physician, and any IME or 2nd opinion physician, to support the defense.