Hill v. Eagle Bend Mfg., Inc.

Decision Date07 April 1997
Citation942 S.W.2d 483
PartiesRonald Wayne HILL, Plaintiff/Appellant, v. EAGLE BEND MANUFACTURING, INC., Transportation Insurance Company, Defendant, and Larry Brinton, Jr., Director of the Division of Workers' Compensation, Tennessee Department of Labor, Second Injury Fund, Defendant/Appellee.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

John T. March, David H. Dunaway, Dunaway & Associates, Lafollette, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Charles W. Burson, Attorney General and Reporter, Dianne Stamey Dycus, Senior Counsel, Civil Division, Office of the Attorney General, Nashville, for Defendant-Appellee.

OPINION

DROWOTA, Justice.

This case presents for review the decision of the Chancery Court of Campbell County finding the plaintiff, Ronald Wayne Hill, to be permanently and totally disabled. The Special Workers' Compensation Appeals Panel, upon reference for findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Tenn.Code Ann. § 50-6-225(e)(5) (Supp.1996), found that Hill had suffered only an increase in pain, not a compensable injury by accident, and dismissed the case. Thereafter, Hill filed a motion for full court review of the Panel decision pursuant to Tenn.Code Ann. § 50-6-225(e)(5)(B) (1996 Supp.). We granted the motion for review to determine whether Hill suffered a work-related injury by accident which would entitle him to receive workers' compensation benefits for the physical impairment and for any related mental disorder. After carefully examining the record before us and considering the relevant authorities, we affirm the trial court's finding that Hill suffered a work-related injury by accident which rendered him totally and permanently disabled.

BACKGROUND

The plaintiff, Ronald Wayne Hill, was forty years old at the time of trial and possessed a GED. His prior work experience consisted primarily of manufacturing and carpentry jobs, including small parts assembler, production welder, press operator, and construction laborer. While employed for the defendant Eagle Bend Manufacturing Company, Hill was an assembly worker which was classified as medium level work with occasional lifting up to one hundred pounds.

Prior to the injury at issue in this appeal, Hill previously had received a court approved workers' compensation settlement award of 11.5 percent permanent partial disability to the body as a whole for a back injury he sustained on August 2, 1990. After returning to work for Eagle Bend, Hill again injured his back on October 29, 1991 and was required to undergo back surgery on January 15, 1992 and May 6, 1992. Eventually Hill received a workers' compensation award of 88.5 percent permanent partial disability to the body as a whole as a result of this second injury.

Following these back surgeries, Hill first returned to work in June, 1992. He initially worked four hours per day, but was increased to six hours per day in July and thereafter to eight hours per day. Hill was working eight hours per day with restrictions of no heavy repetitive lifting when he was again injured on October 20, 1992. Hill testified that while lifting a box of automotive parts on that date he felt a severe pain in his back that ran down into his buttocks and legs. Hill testified that the October 20 injury caused him more pain than he had ever before experienced. Hill said that as a result of the injury, he has been unable to return to work and has experienced severe emotional problems.

Hill's treating board certified orthopedic surgeon, Dr. James Maguire, testified that the back condition from which Hill continues to suffer is causally related to the October 20 injury. While acknowledging that Hill's MRI studies do not show a significant interval change following the October 20 injury, Dr. Maguire testified that Hill had suffered a further permanent injury and exacerbation of his pre-existing back condition as a result of the October 20, 1992 incident. Dr. Maguire concluded that Hill's condition is not a temporary flare-up and assessed a 19 percent permanent impairment to the body as a whole which included the October 20 injury as well as the prior back injuries. Based upon Hill's physical condition and the severe debilitating pain that he had experienced since the October 20 injury, Dr. Maguire imposed a permanent no lifting restriction upon Hill.

Following the October 20 injury, Dr. Maguire also referred Hill to a psychiatrist for treatment of depression. Hill had never seen a psychiatrist before that time. Dr. Martin Gebrow evaluated Hill and diagnosed major affective disorder, depressed type, single episode. Dr. Gebrow opined that the mental disorder is directly attributable to the October 20 injury. Dr. Gebrow testified that Hill's depression had become chronic and permanent and he classified Hill's permanent medical impairment from the depression as class four, marked impairment, indicating that Hill is depressed to an extent that it significantly impedes all useful functioning. Dr. Gebrow stated that Hill is unable to maintain concentration and is unable to tolerate even ordinary work stresses or pressure. As for Hill's prognosis, Dr. Gebrow opined that Hill will remain chronically depressed and will have to remain on anti-depressant medication and pain medication to cope with his condition. Dr. Gebrow concluded that the injury-induced depression will prevent Hill from returning to gainful employment.

Dr. Norman Hankins, a vocational expert, also testified. Assuming the restrictions imposed by Dr. Maguire, Dr. Hankins opined that Hill is 100 percent vocationally disabled. Dr. Hankins based his opinion on Hill's education, employment background, mental disorder, as well as the 19 percent impairment rating and lifting restriction assigned by Dr. Maguire.

After considering the uncontradicted proof of Hill's anatomical and vocational disability, the trial court found that Hill had sustained a work-related injury by accident on October 20, 1992 which rendered him permanently and totally disabled. The trial court apportioned 100 percent of the liability to the Second Injury Fund because Hill had received two prior workers' compensation awards which totaled 100 percent. The Second Injury Fund appealed. Upon reference for findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Tenn.Code Ann. § 50-6-225(e)(5) (Supp.1996), the Special Workers' Compensation Appeals Panel found that Hill had suffered only an increase in pain, not a compensable injury by accident, and dismissed the case. Thereafter, we granted Hill's motion for full court review and now reject the Panel's findings of fact and conclusions of law and affirm in its entirety the judgment of the trial court finding Hill totally and permanently disabled and apportioning the liability to the Second Injury Fund.

COMPENSABLE INJURY

In workers' compensation cases, the scope of review in this Court on issues of fact is de novo upon the record of the trial court, accompanied by a presumption of the correctness of the findings, unless the preponderance of the evidence is otherwise. Tenn.Code Ann. § 50-6-225(e)(2) (1996 Supp.); Lollar v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 767 S.W.2d 143 (Tenn.1989). When a trial court has seen and heard witnesses, especially where issues of credibility and weight of oral testimony are involved, considerable deference must be accorded the trial court's factual findings. Humphrey v. David Witherspoon, Inc., 734 S.W.2d 315 (Tenn.1987). With these principles in mind, we examine the record in this case to determine whether the evidence preponderates against the trial court's findings.

It is well-established that the plaintiff in a workers' compensation suit bears the burden of proving every element of the case by a preponderance of the evidence, including the existence of a work-related injury by accident. See Talley v. Virginia Ins. Reciprocal, 775 S.W.2d 587, 591 (Tenn.1989). An injury must both "arise out of" as well as be "in the course of" employment to be compensable under workers' compensation. The phrase "in the course of" refers to time, place and circumstances, and "arising out of" refers to cause or origin. An accidental injury arises out of and is in the course and scope of employment if it has a rational connection to the work and occurs while the employee is engaged in the duties of employment. Orman v. Williams Sonoma, Inc., 803 S.W.2d 672, 676 (Tenn.1991).

Except in the most obvious and routine cases, the claimant in a workers' compensation action must establish causation by expert medical evidence. Id. Although causation cannot be based upon speculative or conjectural proof, absolute medical certainty is not required and reasonable doubt is to be construed in favor of the employee. White v. Werthan Indus., 824 S.W.2d 158, 159 (Tenn.1992). It is entirely appropriate for a trial judge to predicate an award on medical testimony to the effect that a given incident "could be" the cause of the employee's injury, when the trial judge also has heard lay testimony from which it may reasonably be inferred that the incident was in fact the cause of the injury. Orman, 803 S.W.2d at 676.

The evidence in this record supports the trial court's finding that the October 20 injury exacerbated Hill's pre-existing back condition and rendered him totally and permanently disabled. Prior to that incident, Hill was working eight hours per day with...

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