Kennamer Bros., Inc. v. Ronney Stewart – TTD benefits are owed when an employee produces substantial evidence showing that his on-the-job accident caused his injury, and the amount to be paid is the state average weekly wage at the time of the injury.
Kennamer Brothers, Inc. appealed to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, asking it to determine whether its employee Ronney Stewart’s injuries arose from an on-the-job accident and entitled Stewart to temporary-total-disability (“TTD”) benefits, as decided by the trial court, pursuant to the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act (Alabama Code § 25-5-1 et seq.). Kennamer Bros., Inc. v. Ronney Stewart [Ms. 2150359], — So.3d — (Ala.Civ.App. 2016).
Stewart alleged that on October 25, 2012, while operating in the line and scope of his employment as a truck driver for Kennamer Brothers, the vehicle he was operating overturned, resulting in injuries to Stewart’s head, neck, back, left arm, right arm and shoulder, legs, and body as a whole. The trial court determined at a compensability hearing that Stewart’s torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder was a compensable injury that resulted from the October 25, 2012 accident; it further determined that Stewart was entitled to TTD benefits of $771/week from December 21, 2012 to July 1, 2013, and $788/week from July 1, 2013 to January 28, 2014, when Stewart found another job.
The appellate court had two issues to decide:
(1) Whether the vehicle crash caused Stewart’s right-shoulder injury.
In order to prove causation arising from an accident, “an employee must produce substantial evidence tending to show that the alleged accident occurred and must establish medical causation by showing that the accident caused or was a contributing cause of the injury.” Pair v. Jack’s Family Rests., Inc., 756 So.2d 678, 681 (Ala.Civ.App. 2000).
Following the accident, Stewart was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was treated for a head injury. About a week later, he treated at an urgent-care clinic in Boaz, Alabama, where he was referred to a neurosurgeon. Over the course of the next two months, he continued to receive treatment and had pain killers prescribed by doctors.
Stewart testified that he began to notice problems with his right shoulder as he came off the pain medication. He first reported back, neck, and arm symptoms in March 2013. His neurologist ordered an MRI and subsequently determined that Stewart had reached maximum medical improvement (“MMI”) with no impairment. Stewart then requested a panel of doctors, and first saw a panel doctor in August 2013, and was determined to have moderate-to-severe ulnar entrapment in his left arm. In December 2013, Stewart was again found to have reached MMI for his head and left-arm injuries.
Afterward, Stewart began treating with Dr. Janssen, who administered another MRI and diagnosed Stewart with a full-thickness tear in his right-shoulder rotator cuff, which required surgery. Dr. Janssen testified in deposition that Stewart’s October 2012 vehicle crash had caused or contributed to Stewart’s right shoulder symptoms. Dr. Janssen agreed that it would be uncommon for a patient to have a significant delay between the rotator cuff tear and experiencing pain symptoms, but that other injuries could mask his rotator cuff symptoms.
Medical records introduced in the case indicate that Stewart’s first complaints of shoulder pain came approximately five months after the accident. However, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals has previously held that symptoms that first appear even months after a traumatic event may be properly deemed to be caused by the trauma if no intervening event has occurred and no alternative medical explanation is provided for the appearance of the symptoms. See Fab Arc Steel Supply, Inc. v. Dodd, 168 So.3d 1244 (Ala.Civ.App. 2015). Herein, there was no evidence of any other traumatic event, and the appellate court concluded that the trial court’s determination of medical causation was supported by the evidence.
(2) Whether the trial court properly determined Stewart’s TTD benefits.
The appellate court again referred to its decision in Fab Arc, wherein it recognized that as a general rule, TTD benefits are not payable if, before MMI is reached, the injured employee is able to work and earn his pre-injury wages, but is prevented from working for reasons unrelated to his workplace injury. Fab Arc, 168 So.3d at 1259.
Kennamer Brothers terminated its employment relationship with Kennamer on February 4, 2013, citing that it was unable to procure liability insurance on him resulting from the subject accident. Conflicting testimony regarding Stewart’s inability to find work after the accident suggested alternatively that Stewart’s past criminal history may have contributed, that he was unable to obtain DOT-required medical certification, and/or that the work-restrictions he had been placed under in August 2013 by his panel doctor resulted in his inability to find work. The appellate court determined that Stewart had provided evidence showing a causal link between his injury and his diminished earning capacity during the 14-month specified period.
But Kennamer Brothers argues that the TTD award was in violation of Alabama Code § 25-5-68, which provides that the maximum compensation payable under the Workers’ Compensation Act is 100% of the average weekly wage of the state as determined by the Alabama Department of Labor, but also that the maximum benefits in effect on the date of the accident which results in the injury are applicable for the full period during which TTD benefits are payable. As such, Kennamer Brothers contends that Stewart’s TTD benefits should have remained at $771/week throughout the course of the award, rather than being increased to $788/week in July 2013. The appellate court agreed, and reversed and remanded accordingly.