Baltimore v. Kelly

Decision Date07 February 2006
Docket NumberNo. 17, September Term, 2005.,17, September Term, 2005.
Citation391 Md. 64,891 A.2d 1103
PartiesBALTIMORE COUNTY, Maryland v. William A. KELLY, III.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

William J. Bower, III, Assistant County Attorney (Jay L. Liner, County Attorney, on brief), Towson, for petitioner.

Victor D. Sobotka (Schlachman, Belsky & Weiner, P.A., on brief), Towson, for respondent.

Argued before BELL, C.J., RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL, HARRELL, BATTAGLIA and GREENE, JJ.

HARRELL, J.

Workers' compensation cases, in some regards, occupy a special niche in Maryland civil law. One of those is the polyglot legal processes available to obtain judicial scrutiny of the decision of the administrative body, the Workers' Compensation Commission (the Commission), which considers such claims in the first instance. A party dissatisfied by the action of the Commission may seek review in a circuit court by either proceeding on the record made before the Commission (much like judicial review of the final action of most state administrative agencies) or receive a new evidentiary hearing and decision before a jury (much like an original civil complaint brought in a circuit court). Under either process elected in a circuit court by the party seeking to reverse or modify the Commission's decision in whole or in part, the agency's decision is entitled to a presumption of correctness that must be overcome. In the present case, we shall consider whether an essentially de novo jury process before the Circuit Court for Baltimore County was amenable to disposition on a motion for summary judgment filed by the petitioning party.

I.

William A. Kelly, III (Kelly), a Baltimore County police officer, while operating his police cruiser, was involved in a motor vehicle accident with a drunk driver. Kelly filed a claim with the Commission asserting that a required surgery to his lower back was linked directly to the motor vehicle accident. Because Kelly acknowledged that the accident aggravated a prior back injury, his employer, Baltimore County (County), argued that the surgery was a consequence exclusively of the pre-existing back injury, not the employment-related motor vehicle accident. The Commission determined that "the accidental injury sustained... exacerbated [Kelly's] pre-existing condition requiring the need for back surgery," and thus ordered benefits be paid to Kelly.

The County "appealed" the Commission's decision to the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, filing a Petition for Judicial Review and requesting a jury trial. The County followed with a Motion for Summary Judgment claiming that there was "no medical evidence to support [Kelly's] claim that his back surgery ... and subsequent treatment [was] in any way related to the ... motor vehicle accident." It argued that Kelly, under S.B. Thomas, Inc. v. Thompson, 114 Md.App. 357, 689 A.2d 1301 (1997), was required to prove causation because his claim involved a complex medical question. Asserting that Kelly failed before the Commission to meet that burden by competent medical evidence, the County claimed entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. The trial court granted the County's Motion for Summary Judgment, thus reversing the Commission's decision in favor of Kelly.

On Kelly's direct appeal, the Court of Special Appeals, in a reported opinion, Kelly v. Baltimore County, 161 Md.App. 128, 867 A.2d 355 (2005), reversed the judgment of the Circuit Court and remanded the case for further proceedings. We granted the County's Petition for Writ of Certiorari to determine whether summary judgment was granted properly by the Circuit Court. Baltimore County v. Kelly, 387 Md. 462, 875 A.2d 767 (2005).1

II.

Writing for the Court of Special Appeals in this matter, Judge Meredith detailed well the following factual and procedural background of this case:

On October 24, 2002, Kelly was on routine patrol, driving a marked police car, when he was struck by an oncoming vehicle. The driver of the other vehicle, who was impaired by alcohol, turned the wrong way down a one-way street and crashed into the driver's side of Kelly's car. According to Kelly, as a result of the accident, Kelly re-injured his back, which had been problematic for some time. He obtained medical care on October 25, 2002, at which time he was diagnosed with a lumbar sprain and placed on modified activity with some restrictions.

On October 28, 2002, the County filed a first report of injury, informing the Commission that Kelly's accident caused him to suffer an injury to his lower back (lumbar and sacral). Subsequently, on January 20, 2003, Kelly filed his own employee's claim with the Commission, and he also claimed his lower back was injured when his vehicle was struck. On January 27, 2003, prior to the Commission awarding Kelly any compensation for the October 2002 employment-related injury, Kelly underwent surgery for the decompression of a disc in his back.

The Commission issued Kelly an award on February 25, 2003, finding that he had sustained an accidental injury arising out of the course of his employment, and that he was temporarily totally disabled as a result of his injuries. The County was ordered to provide Kelly with weekly compensation dating back to November 3, 2002, and to pay for his medical treatment and other necessary medical services as provided by Md.Code (1957, 2002 Repl.Vol.), Labor and Employment Article ("L.E."), § 9-660 through § 9-664, and § 9-689. On April 14, 2003, the County filed issues to be heard by the Commission, questioning whether Kelly's surgery was causally related to his accident of October 24, 2002. A hearing was held by the Commission on July 31, 2003.

At the Commission hearing, the County argued that the back injury that led to Kelly's surgery was actually a non-work-related injury suffered in December 2001 while playing basketball. Evidence was presented in the form of medical reports, which indicated Kelly had been receiving treatment since the December 2001 incident for a disc herniation in the same area of his lower back where his 2003 surgery had been performed.

The County submitted a letter report from Dr. Stephen R. Matz, a physician hired by the County to conduct an "independent medical evaluation" of Kelly. The County argued that it was Dr. Matz's opinion that Kelly's back surgery was not causally connected to the employment-related motor vehicle accident, but instead resulted from his 2001 basketball injury. Additionally, the County submitted two letters concerning the surgery from Kelly's treating physician, Dr. Ira Fedder, which the County argued did not expressly connect the surgery with the injury Kelly suffered from the motor vehicle accident. The County argued that Dr. Fedder's omission of an opinion as to causation was significant.

The documentary evidence presented by the County reflected that Dr. Fedder had discussed back surgery with Kelly in September 2002 during the course of treatment for the December 2001 basketball injury. The documents further reflected that Dr. Fedder suggested that, before resorting to surgery, Kelly should first undergo a series of injections, known as selective nerve root block, to see if that procedure would eliminate his back pain.

Dr. Fedder referred Kelly to Dr. P. Bobbie Dey, who gave Kelly nerve root block injections on the following four dates: October 10, 2002, October 17, 2002, October 31, 2002, and November 7, 2002. Kelly testified at the Commission hearing that after the October 17, 2002 injection, he was doing well and was not going to receive the third injection. However, after the motor vehicle accident on October 24, 2002, Kelly's pain returned, and he decided to receive the third and fourth injections.

Dr. Dey's patient reports regarding Kelly were submitted at the Commission hearing. They corroborated that Kelly was experiencing pain when he visited her on October 31, 2002, one week after his involvement in the motor vehicle accident. Her report from that visit stated: "[T]he patient was 100 percent improved. Recently, the patient had a side impact, work-related motor vehicle accident since which time the pain in his legs have returned. I recommend no [street] duties as a police officer for the [next] 6 to 8 months."

Kelly submitted additional medical records at the Commission hearing regarding the 2001 back injury. He admitted that Dr. Fedder had discussed the possibility of surgery with him prior to the motor vehicle accident that occurred on October 24, 2002, but he asserted that his condition had improved substantially in response to the nerve root injections he received, and that he had ruled out surgery until the accident caused the pain to return. Kelly argued that, while the motor vehicle accident was not the original cause of his back pain, the accident aggravated the old injury and caused him to need surgery.

Kelly also testified that he did not miss any time from work as a result of the December 2001 basketball injury, except for two to three days right after the injury occurred. He testified that he had been in incidents involving fights with suspects since he suffered the original injury, but he had never reinjured his back until the motor vehicle accident on October 24, 2002.

The Commission issued a decision in Kelly's favor, finding: "[T]he accidental injury sustained on October 24, 2002 exacerbated [Kelly's] pre-existing condition requiring the need for surgery ...." The County was ordered to pay for all of Kelly's medical bills that were related to the January 27, 2003 surgery, and to provide Kelly with compensation for his recovery period following the surgery.

The County sought judicial review of the Commission's decision in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County pursuant to Md. Rule 7-201, and requested a jury trial. The County then filed a motion for summary judgment, requesting that the court summarily reverse the decision of the Commission and enter judgment in its...

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