Kathy Swanner v. Haworth, Inc.

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October 26, 2005






Andree Layton Roaf, Judge

Kathy Swanner, pro se, appeals from the Workers' Compensation Commission's decision to deny her claim for benefits. On appeal, Swanner argues that there is insufficient evidence to support the Commission's decision. Because Swanner failed to meet her burden of proof, we affirm.

On October 6, 2003, Swanner began working at Haworth, Inc., in its panel fabric assembly department. During her third week of employment, Swanner cut her right index finger and palm with a heated knife. She stated that she was cleaning the heated knife with a brush; that the table she was using was not secure; and that, when the table slipped, she dropped the brush and cut her finger. The injury did not bleed because the knife cauterized the cut, and by Sunday afternoon, all soreness and visible signs of injury were gone. The next day, Swanner cut her right knuckle on the corner of a metal panel. The cut bled, and Swanner put a band-aid on

the wound. Swanner described that injury as a "little scratch" and agreed that the cut was very minor.

On October 29, 2003, Swanner reported that she was experiencing pain in her right hand. She first noticed the pain after her lunch hour and then noticed that the pain became progressively worse. As the day progressed, Swanner's hand swelled, and she ultimately lost strength and the ability to open and close her right hand.

The next day, Swanner reported to work but was unable to perform her duties. She was transported to the hospital, where Dr. Michael Lack treated her. Dr. Lack took an X-ray of her hand and then referred her to Dr. Spencer Guinn. Dr. Guinn immediately sent Swanner to St. Bernard's Hospital because he suspected that she was suffering from blood poisoning due to the appearance of red streaks on her hand and arm. Swanner was admitted and remained hospitalized until November 6, 2003. During that time, Swanner also saw Dr. Carl Abraham, a disease specialist, because neither of her other treating physicians could determine what was causing her condition. Dr. Abraham sought assistance from Dr. Tomasz Majewski, and Dr. Majewski eventually operated on Swanner's hand on November 1, 2003. Although Dr. Majewski diagnosed Swanner with having an infection (acute synovitis) in her right hand, none of her treating physicians could state what caused the infection, and Dr. Majewski ultimately concluded that Swanner's condition was not work-related. Swanner admitted that she did not initially tell her treating physicians about the cuts she sustained at work until repeatedly questioned by one of Dr. Abraham's nurses. In response to Dr. Guinn's questions about the presence of scratches on her hands, Swanner admitted that, during the weekend following her injury, she had cut dead flowers from her rose bush, but she maintained that she wore gloves while doing so.

Swanner sought workers' compensation benefits for the injury to her hand, including the after effects of her infection, which are loss of strength in the right hand, inability to close the hand fully, and swelling. Haworth stipulated that Swanner sustained two cuts at work, but denied that her infection and subsequent medical treatment were the result of those injuries. Instead, Haworth contended that Swanner had a nonwork-related infection in her right hand. TheALJ found that Swanner had failed to prove that she sustained an injury arising out of or in the course of her employment and that Swanner failed to prove that the infection for which she was treated was caused by either cut sustained during her employment with Haworth. The Commission adopted the ALJ's findings and conclusions of law and affirmed the ALJ's denial of benefits. Swanner brings this appeal.

For her sole point on appeal, Swanner argues that substantial evidence does not support the Commission's decision.1 When reviewing a decision of the Workers' Compensation Commission, we view the evidence and all reasonable inferences deducible therfrom in the light most favorable to the findings of the Commission and affirm that decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Heptinstall v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co., 84 Ark. App. 215, 137 S.W.3d 421 (2003). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence which reasonable minds might accept as adequate to support a conclusion of the Commission. Id. The issue on appeal is not whether we might have reached a different result or whether the evidence would have supported a contrary finding; if reasonable minds could reach the Commission's conclusion, we must affirm its decision. Id. The Commission is required to weigh the evidence impartially without giving the benefit of the doubt to any party. Id. The Commission also has the duty of weighing the medical evidence as it does any other evidence. Id. On review, we recognize the Commission's function to determine the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Stotts, 74 Ark. App. 428, 58 S.W.3d 853 (2001).

Swanner has the burden of proving her injury by a preponderance of the evidence. See Mikel v. Engineered Specialty Plastics, 56 Ark. App. 126, 938 S.W.2d 876 (1997). In this case, four different physicians treated Swanner for the infection in her hand. None of the fourphysicians could state what caused Swanner's condition, and Dr. Majewski initially indicated that it was "unknown" whether Swanner's condition was work-related. He later opined that the condition was not work related. Swanner argues:

There has been no medical proof established by any of these four doctors that the infection I had in my hand was or was not caused by the cauterized cut I received in my hand at Hawthorn on October 22, 2003, but remains a medical mystery.

Accordingly, Swanner argues that the cut she received "could have been the cause of the infection," and that the Commission gave more weight to Haworth's witness's testimony than to the common-sense testimony she gave at the hearing. At the hearing Swanner testified:

In my heart and in my mind, I have no medical proof whatsoever, because I have only been told from physicians, one after the other, they do not know what is wrong with [my hand]. I feel like when I cut it with the hot knife that something sealed up inside the hand in that finger that caused the infection. Because when I went to work at Haworth, there was nothing wrong with me. Those were the only injuries that I received. The only thing different in my life. And I didn't - on the 29th and the 30th. I really don't know. I hurt so bad, and I was scared. I didn't even think about the cuts until Dr. Abraham's nurse questioned me repeatedly about the cuts, burns... .

(Emphasis added.) It is clear from the above testimony that Swanner failed to prove by the preponderance of the evidence that her infection was the result of her work injury. Arkansas Code Annotated section 11-9-102(16)(B) (Supp. 2003) requires that medical opinions be stated within a reasonable degree of medical certainty. Here none of the physicians could say with certainty that Swanner's condition was work-related, and at least one physician-Dr. Majewski-indicated that the condition was not work-related. Swanner had the burden of proving that her injury was causally related to employment. Here, Swanner admits that she presented "no medical proof whatsoever" to establish a causal connection. Consequently, she has failed to meet her burden, and the Commission's decision is affirmed.

Additionally, Swanner challenges the Commission's decision to give more weight to Haworth's witness's testimony than to her own testimony. This court has long recognized the Commission's function to determine the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given theirtestimony. Stotts, supra. Accordingly we will not disturb the Commission's decision involving the credibility of witnesses. Id.


Griffen and Vaught, JJ., agree.

1 We are mindful of the fact that Swanner's brief does not comply with Rule 4-2(a)(4), (6), and (8) of the Rules of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. These rules apply equally to pro se litigants. Jewell v. Ark. State Bd. of Dental Exmrs., 324 Ark. 463, 921 S.W.2d 950 (1996). While failure to comply with our rules may result in an decision from this court ordering that the appellant cure deficiencies in the abstract or addendum, Spears v. State, 82 Ark. App. 376, 109 S.W.3d 139 (2003), we find that the deficiencies in this case are not such that we cannot reach the merits of the case.