Ford Motor Co. v. Duckworth, 012121 KYSC, 2019-SC-0357-WC

Docket Nº:2019-SC-0357-WC
Opinion Judge:HUGHES, JUSTICE
Party Name:FORD MOTOR COMPANY APPELLANT v. DEBORAH DUCKWORTH; JOHN H. MCCRACKEN, ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE; AND WORKERS' COMPENSATION BOARD APPELLEES
Attorney:COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Joshua Wininster Davis Priscilla Coleman Page O'BRYAN, BROWN & TONER, PLLC COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE, DEBORAH DUCKWORTH: Melissa Anderson Hofe Stephanie Nicole Wolfinbarger COTTON WOLFINBARGER & ASSOCIATES, PLLC ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE: John H. McCracken WORKERS' COMPENSATION B...
Case Date:January 21, 2021
Court:Supreme Court of Kentucky

FORD MOTOR COMPANY APPELLANT

v.

DEBORAH DUCKWORTH; JOHN H. MCCRACKEN, ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE; AND WORKERS' COMPENSATION BOARD APPELLEES

No. 2019-SC-0357-WC

Supreme Court of Kentucky

January 21, 2021

ON APPEAL FROM COURT OF APPEALS NO. 2018-CA-1871 WORKERS' COMPENSATION BOARD NO. 13-WC-90836

COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Joshua Wininster Davis Priscilla Coleman Page O'BRYAN, BROWN & TONER, PLLC

COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE, DEBORAH DUCKWORTH: Melissa Anderson Hofe Stephanie Nicole Wolfinbarger COTTON WOLFINBARGER & ASSOCIATES, PLLC

ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE: John H. McCracken

WORKERS' COMPENSATION BOARD: Michael Wayne Alvey, Chairman

OPINION

HUGHES, JUSTICE

Ford Motor Company appeals from the Court of Appeals' decision upholding an Administrative Law Judge's (ALJ) award of benefits to Deborah Duckworth. Ford argues that the ALJ exceeded the scope of his authority and erred in determining the manifestation dates of Duckworth's cumulative trauma neck and back injuries. Because the ALJ has authority to determine the manifestation date for cumulative trauma injury and properly applied controlling law to the facts of this case in determining that Duckworth's claim was not time-barred, we affirm the Court of Appeals.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Deborah Duckworth began working for Ford Motor Company in 1998 as an assembler at the Kentucky truck plant. She worked for ten hours a day, five days each week. Beginning in July 2007 she worked a wire loom job, which required her to pick the correct wire loom (harness) from the side of the line, tear the tape off, then carry the loom, weighing approximately 20 pounds, to the front of the frame of the vehicle to place the loom. Duckworth testified that this caused her to have to stand on her toes, as the frames were higher than she could reach standing flat-footed. She also stated that she had to constantly bend her neck "up and under" to see what she was hooking and that her back was constantly slouched. She testified that she would repeat this action approximately 300 times per day. Duckworth began having pain and spasms in her neck and back but, despite these symptoms, she continued her wire loom work. Prior to the wire loom job, Duckworth had not experienced any pain nor required any treatment for her neck or back.

On November 8, 2007, Duckworth presented to the Ford medical facility with neck pain after leaning over a frame to put in the wire loom. Again, she continued her wire loom work despite her symptoms. She periodically visited the Ford medical facility and received conservative treatment, such as heat, ice and physical therapy, from Dr. Greg Ornella in 2008 and 2009. In 2010 she experienced worsening lower back pain and again visited the Ford medical facility several times for treatment. According to the medical records, during these intermittent visits none of the medical providers she treated with at the Ford medical facility informed her that her conditions were work-related. In fact, her conditions were listed as an "illness." Despite Duckworth informing the Ford medical providers that she believed her conditions were due to the repetitive nature of her job, during some of her office visits she was told that Ford would not pay for her care. She was eventually referred to Dr. Rodney Chou who prescribed medication and referred her to Dr. Dean Collis for cervical and lumbar epidural injections. She received these injections in 2010 and 2011. She took time off work for the injections and on those days, Ford paid her temporary total disability (TTD) benefits.

Duckworth continued working the wire loom job until February 2011 when she was moved to a position that would cause less neck pain. However, a few weeks later she was returned to a different wire loom job. Duckworth testified that although the wire loom job was a "mandatory rotation job," meaning for half the day she would be rotated to a different position, the rotation was never enforced, and she worked the wire loom job for her entire shift. Her neck and back pain continued, and she treated at the Ford medical facility in 2011 to 2012. Duckworth testified that although the wire loom position was eventually eliminated, she struggled in every position in which they placed her. Eventually she lost control of her hands and her legs became weak. Prior to October 10, 2011, the Ford medical providers classified her condition as an "illness." During an October 10, 2011 visit to the Ford medical facility, a nurse noted that her low back condition was an "injury." The ALJ stated that it appeared this particular office note allowed Duckworth to get a lumbar epidural injection.

While working on April 12, 2012, Duckworth was struck on top of the head by a piece of handheld equipment. Her neck symptoms worsened following this incident. Several months later, on October 2, 2012, she fell at work which worsened her neck symptoms.

During an evaluation Dr. Chou examined Duckworth's gait and tested her reflexes. He opined that something was wrong. On January 7, 2013 Duckworth obtained a cervical MRI and was referred to Dr. Thomas Becherer. Dr. Becherer placed her on restrictions beginning February 27, 2013. She underwent neck surgery on April 9, 2013. Duckworth continued to have weakness in her lower extremities and was referred to Dr. Richard Holt for further examination of her lumbar spine. Dr. Holt ordered an MRI and on November 29, 2013, performed back surgery.

Duckworth filed an Application for Benefits form on June 10, 2013. She stated she [s]uffered work-related cumulative trauma injury to her back and neck in the course of working the wireloom job which manifest 11/8/07. Plaintiff continued to work and perform the wireloom job and suffer cumulative trauma to her neck and back. Thereafter Plaintiff worked multiple jobs that caused hastened cumulative trauma to her neck and culminating with worsened MRI findings on 1/17/13 and the recommendation for cervical surgery February 2013.

Later in the claim she noted the body part injured as "back and neck (11/8/07; 1/7/13)." Ford filed a special answer, alleging that Duckworth's claims for injuries to her neck and back manifesting on November 8, 2007, were barred by the statute of limitations.

The ALJ held a Benefit Review Conference and the resulting order identified five injury dates, including November 8, 2007, but the order also stated that the injury dates were "at issue," and identified the "date of injury" and "statute of limitations" as "contested issues." In her brief before the ALJ, Duckworth represented that she had "suffered work-related cumulative trauma injury to her back and neck in the course of her employment which first manifest[ed] November 8, 2007." She explained her cumulative trauma injury had manifested on that date because "she presented to Ford Medical November 8, 2007 with neck pain after leaning over the frame to put in the wire loom."

In his June 11, 2018 Opinion and Order, the ALJ held that for cumulative trauma injury, the date a claimant is advised by a physician that she has a work-related condition is the date of injury for statute of limitations purposes. Consol of Ky., Inc. v. Goodgame, 479 S.W.3d 78 (Ky. 2015). The ALJ reasoned that a claimant is not required to self-diagnose a harmful change as being a work-related injury for the purpose of giving notice, citing American Printing House for the Blind v. Brown, 142 S.W.3d 145, 148 (Ky. 2004). Although Ford argued that Duckworth knew her condition was work-related as early as November 8, 2007, her back condition was not listed as an injury until October 10, 2011. In an office record dated March 22, 2010, Dr. Chou noted that the cause of Duckworth's condition was due to repetitive injury. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that the dates of discovery, for notice and manifestation purposes, of her cumulative trauma neck and back injury were March 22, 2010 and October 10, 2011, respectively.

Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 342.185(1) states: If payments of income benefits have been made, the filing of an application for adjustment of claim with the department within the period shall not be required, but shall become requisite within two (2) years following the suspension of payments or within two (2) years of the date of the accident, whichever is later.

The parties stipulated that the last TTD payment was made to Duckworth on August 5, 2011.1 Because Duckworth filed an application for benefits on June 10, 2013, she filed her claim within two years of the date of the last TTD payment. Accordingly, the ALJ found the claim was not time-barred.

Ford filed a petition for reconsideration, emphasizing the fact that Duckworth was being treated at the Ford medical facility for work-related neck and back pain since 2007. In the order on reconsideration, the ALJ explained that no physician informed Duckworth her neck and back pain were work-related in 2007. He acknowledged that Duckworth told the Ford medical personnel her own belief that the pain was work-related...

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