Deborah Munjak v. Town & Country Discount Foods and Benchmark Insurance Company

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April 14, 2004


[NO. E714422]


Robert J. Gladwin, Judge

Appellant Deborah Munjak was employed by appellee Town & Country Discount Foods. She contends that she sustained a compensable injury on March 6, 1996, when she slipped and fell while exiting a walk-in cooler. At a coworker's urging, appellant reported the injury to her employer, but testified that she was not hurt at the time. She further acknowledged that she did not begin experiencing back problems until around two to three months after the fall. The Commission found that appellant failed to prove that her back problems were causally related to her fall on March 6, 1996, and denied benefits. Appellant argues on appeal that the decision of the Commission is not supported by substantial evidence. We affirm.

When appellant began experiencing back pain two to three months after she fell at work, she initially sought treatment from Dr. Tim Paden, who subsequently referred her to Dr. Anthony McBride, a neurosurgeon. According to both Dr. McBride and appellant, appellant did not tell the doctor about the fall at work. Dr. McBride stated in his deposition

that he did not learn of the fall at work until some six months after he had performed surgery on appellant. In a narrative dated December 9, 1997, Dr. McBride stated, "I do understand from her history that she had intermittent problems with back pain in the past and did show signs of some developmental abnormalities in her back. She certainly could have exacerbated her problem from a fall or other axial loading injury to her spine which then began the progression of her spondylolisthesis . . . . "

In denying benefits, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that any medical opinion directed toward establishing the compensability of a claim must be stated within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, and that the doctor's conclusion that appellant "could have exacerbated" her preexisting problems from a fall was not stated with sufficient certainty. On appeal, the Commission noted that the ALJ had not mentioned a report by Dr. McBride that was written on May 5, 2000, to the effect that, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, appellant's fall at work was the major cause of appellant's permanent impairment. The Commission remanded for clarification and additional findings.

The ALJ then issued a second opinion in which he recounted his earlier decision, and stated that although he failed to discuss the May 5, 2000, report, it was taken into consideration when he weighed the evidence. He made note of the facts that the doctor acknowledged in the 2000 report that he had seen appellant only once since April 20, 1998, and that the 1997 report was authored by the doctor on his own initiative, whereas the 2000 report was written in response to a request from appellant's attorney and basically mirrored the language found in the attorney's request. The ALJ concluded that the doctor's December 9, 1997, report was entitled to more weight because it was rendered at the time when the doctor was actively treating appellant. The ALJ further stated that even if he were to find the2000 report was more credible, it would still not be sufficient to support a conclusion that appellant's back condition was causally related to her fall at her place of employment.

The standard of review in workers' compensation cases is well-settled. When reviewing a decision of the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission, we view the evidence and all reasonable inferences deducible therefrom in the light most favorable to the findings of the Commission and affirm that decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Angell, 75 Ark. App. 325, 58 S.W.3d 396 (2001). Substantial evidence is that relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Wheeler Constr. Co. v. Armstrong, 73 Ark. App. 146, 41 S.W.3d 822 (2001). We do not reverse a decision of the Commission unless we are convinced that fair-minded persons with the same facts before them could not have arrived at the conclusion reached. White v. Gregg Agric. Enters., 72 Ark. App. 309, 37 S.W.3d 649 (2001). In cases where the Commission's denial of relief is based upon the claimant's failure to prove entitlement by a preponderance of the evidence, the substantial-evidence standard of review requires us to affirm the Commission's action if its opinion displays a substantial basis for the denial of relief. Id.

The Commission has the authority to accept or reject medical opinion and the authority to determine its medical soundness and probative force. Hill v. Baptist Med. Ctr., 74 Ark. App. 250, 48 S.W.3d 544 (2001). In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Sands, 80 Ark. App. 51, 91 S.W.3d 93 (2002), we noted that the Commission has the duty of weighing the medical evidence as it does any other evidence, and its resolution of the medical evidence has the force and effect of a jury verdict.

In order to prove a compensable injury, a claimant must prove, among other things, a causal relationship between the injury and the employment. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Stotts,74 Ark. App. 428, 49 S.W.3d 667 (2001). In Freeman v. Con-Agra Frozen Foods, 344 Ark. 296, 40 S.W.3d 760 (2001), the supreme court state that medical evidence supported by objective findings is not essential in every case, but if medical opinions are offered, they must do more than state that the casual relationship between work and the injury is a mere possibility.

In the case now before us, appellant acknowledged that she did not consider herself injured when she fell in the walk-in cooler on March 6, 1996. She testified that she was not even going to report the incident until urged to do so by a coworker. When she saw a neurosurgeon some two to three months later for back pain, she did not mention the March 6 incident to him as a possible cause of her pain. In his December 9, 1997, report regarding appellant's back condition, Dr. McBride stated, "She certainly could have exacerbated her problem from a fall or other axial loading injury to her spine which then began the progression of her spondylolisthesis . . . ." (Emphasis added.)

All of the foregoing facts call into doubt the existence of a causal relationship between appellant's work and her back problems. We believe that the Commission's opinion displays a substantial basis for the denial of relief, and we affirm.


Hart and Griffen, JJ., agree