Gore v. Myrtle/Mueller, 396PA06.

Citation653 S.E.2d 400
Decision Date07 December 2007
Docket NumberNo. 396PA06.,396PA06.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
PartiesMiriam GORE, Employee v. MYRTLE/MUELLER, Employer, Travelers Insurance Company, Carrier.

On discretionary review pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous, unpublished decision of the Court of Appeals, 178 N.C.App. 561, 631 S.E.2d 892 (2006), reversing an Opinion and Award filed on 10 February 2005 by the North Carolina Industrial Commission. On 8 March 2007, the Supreme Court allowed defendants' conditional petition for discretionary review as to additional issues. Heard in the Supreme Court 10 September 2007.

Brumbaugh, Mu & King, P.A., by Leah L. King, Jacksonville, for plaintiff-appellant/appellee.

Hedrick, Eatman, Gardner & Kincheloe, L.L.P., by Thomas M. Morrow and Dana C. Moody, Raleigh, for defendant-appellees/appellants.


This case arises from proceedings before the North Carolina Industrial Commission ("Commission") and raises the two issues of (1) whether a party may be equitably estopped, in the absence of bad faith, from raising the two year filing requirement in N.C.G.S § 97-24 as an affirmative defense, and (2) whether the Commission's Opinion and Award is supported by competent evidence. We granted discretionary review under N.C.G.S. § 7A-31 and now answer both questions in the affirmative. The decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

Factual Background

Evidence before the Commission tended to show that Miriam Gore ("Plaintiff") was employed by Myrtle-Mueller ("Defendant"), a manufacturer of office furniture, from 1985 to April 2000. During her employment, plaintiff worked as a case cleaning inspector performing random inspections until January 2000. She was later transferred to a station where she performed inspections on a full time basis. The inspections entailed pushing and pulling desks. On 12 January 2000, while attempting to assist a fellow employee, plaintiff slipped and fell on a patch of ice in the parking lot of defendant's premises ("January accident"). Plaintiff did not immediately fill out a formal report. However, she testified that her supervisor was aware of the incident. Defendant's human resources worker, Vera Walker ("Walker"), testified that she was aware of the incident, but did not fill out a report at the time of the accident. She recalled subsequently completing a report in May 2000.

On 31 March 2000 ("March accident"), plaintiff, engaged in pulling a desk through large steel doors, "felt a catch in her back." She visited her primary care physician, John D. Hodgson M.D., the same day, complaining of severe back pain. Dr. Hodgson took plaintiff out of work for two weeks. In subsequent proceedings, Walker recalled completing a report for the March accident, but could not recall the specific date she filled out the report.

Plaintiff and Walker completed a Form 18 Notice of Accident, for the March accident on 25 May 2000, although neither Walker nor plaintiff filed the form with the Commission. Walker testified that after completing the form, she assured plaintiff that she would check the Form 18 and "find out where it needs to go." On 26 May 2000, defendant filed a Form 61 Denial of Workers' Compensation Claim for the January accident with the Commission. The form made no reference to the March accident.

On 18 April 2000, plaintiff returned to Dr. Hodgson with continued complaints of back pain, as well as arthritic symptoms in her knees, hips, and joints. Following his examination, Dr. Hodgson diagnosed plaintiff with severe back pain and underlying severe osteoarthritis. He took X-rays of plaintiff's back that revealed Grade II spondylolisthesis at L5-S1 with marked disc narrowing. On 2 May 2000, Dr. Hodgson diagnosed plaintiff with back pain due to degenerative disc disease and spondylolisthesis. Dr. Hodgson indicated that plaintiff was 100 percent disabled due to back pain from degenerative disc disease and listed 26 April 2000 as plaintiff's last day of work.

Plaintiff visited Stephen J. Candela M.D., for a second opinion evaluation on 12 July 2000. Dr. Candela noted that plaintiff suffered from pain on her left side and left hip. He diagnosed plaintiff with low back pain syndrome and trochanteric bursitis. Plaintiff continued to see Dr. Candela until 26 April 2001.

On 20 June 2002, plaintiff visited a third physician, Louie E. Tsiktsiris M.D., of Carolina Arthritis Associates. Dr. Tsiktsiris determined that plaintiff suffered from degenerative arthritis of her neck and back, myofascial pain, and Grade IV spondylolisthesis of her lumbar spine. Plaintiff followed up on 5 July 2002 with Thomas Melin M.D., of Coastal Neurological Associates for a neurosurgical evaluation. Dr. Melin confirmed the diagnosis of L5-S1 spondylolisthesis with resultant back and leg pain and ordered an MRI of plaintiff's lumbar spine. The MRI scan was performed on 11 July 2002, and revealed L5 spondylolysis with Grade II L5-S1 spondylolisthesis, as well as biforaminal stenosis.

The parties subsequently appeared before a deputy commissioner, who denied plaintiff's claim on 11 December 2003. Plaintiff appealed the denial to the Commission. The Commission reviewed the matter and reversed the deputy commissioner in an Opinion and Award filed on 10 February 2005. The Commission entered the following Findings of Fact pertinent to this appeal:

2. . . . [P]laintiff's back condition had been relatively stable during the period preceding January 12, 2000 and March 31, 2000.

3. On January 12, 2000, after plaintiff had clocked into her station, a co-worker informed her that another co-worker had slammed her hand in the trunk of her car in the parking lot. Consequently, plaintiff went to check on the condition of the injured coworker [sic]. The parking lot was icy and slick and plaintiff slipped and fell on her left shoulder, wrist, head, and back. . . . Plaintiff experienced pain in her wrist and head but did not seek medical treatment or report the incident. However, the plaintiff reasonably believed that her supervisor knew about the fall because of comments he made to her that day. Ms. Vera Walker, a human resources worker for defendant-employer, testified that she was aware of the plaintiff's fall and that Ms. Walker did not fill out an accident report.

. . . .

5. On 31 March 2000, the plaintiff felt a catch or pop in her back as she pulled a desk. On this date she went to Dr. Hodgson, her primary care physician and complained about back pain. Plaintiff was treated conservatively with medication and removed from work for two weeks.

. . . .

8. On 25 May 2000 the plaintiff and Vera Walker completed a Form 18 and memo acknowledging notice of the accident to employer and the claim of the employee. Vera Walker recalled filling out the forms but could not recall what she did with the forms, but the Form 18 was not received by the Industrial Commission. The plaintiff was under the reasonable belief and reasonably relied on her perception that the forms would be properly filed with the Industrial Commission.

. . . .

10. On 6 July 2000 plaintiff was having significant back pain and Dr. Hodgson referred plaintiff to Dr. Candella. Plaintiff reported to Dr. Candella a history of having significant back pain after moving desks. Dr. Candella treated plaintiff conservatively with injections of Depomedrol. This treatment had some success but plaintiff's back pain returned with activity.

. . . .

14. Sometime after plaintiff's retirement, approximately 5 May 2000, plaintiff reported her 31 March 2000 back injury to defendant-employer and met with Ms. Vera Walker who was acting human resources manager. Ms. Walker indicated that plaintiff would receive short-term disability, which plaintiff did receive. Ms. Walker explained that she would discuss workers' compensation benefits with the home office. Thereafter, defendant-employer filed a Form 19 with the Industrial Commission, which was dated May 24, 2000 and received by the Commission on either June 5 or 8, 2000. The Form 19 indicates a date of injury of 12 January 2000 and a mechanism of injury of a slip and fall on the ice in the parking lot.

15. Drs. Hodgson and Melin testified that the traumas described by plaintiff of 12 January 2000 and 31 March 2000 aggravated her preexisting, previously asymptomatic back condition.

16. Dr. Hodgson testified in his deposition that plaintiff's 12 January 2000 injury "could have exacerbated the — pain that [plaintiff] was experiencing or could have caused the pain."

17. The plaintiff has been unable to work since 26 April 2000.

Consequently, the Commission entered its Conclusions of Law, which stated, inter alia:

1. Plaintiff sustained a compensable injury by accident arising out of and as a direct result of her employment with defendant in that she suffered specific traumatic incidents on 12 January 2000 and 31 March 2000. The plaintiff has been disabled from any work since 26 April 2000 due to the compensable injury.

2. Plaintiff's workplace injuries of 12 January 2000 and 31 March 2000 aggravated a preexisting, nondisabling condition.

3. The plaintiff reasonably relied on the defendant-employer to file the Form 18 completed by the plaintiff and the defendant-employer's human resources worker. The defendants are thereby equitably estopped to rely on N.C.G.S. § 97-24 to bar the plaintiff's claim.

(citations omitted.) The Commission consequently awarded plaintiff disability compensation and medical treatment.

Defendants' Arguments

Defendants appealed to the Court of Appeals, raising two issues. First, defendants argued, the Commission erred by concluding that it had jurisdiction because plaintiff failed to file either alleged incident within the two year period required by statute. They argued that plaintiff did not file a complaint for the 12 January 2000 incident until 31 January 2002, more than two years after the incident. Defendants also asserted that the Commission first received...

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