USX Corp. v. Bradley

CourtAlabama Court of Civil Appeals
Writing for the CourtCRAWLEY.
Citation881 So.2d 421
Decision Date17 January 2003

Neil Richard Clement and Paul D. Satterwhite of Lange, Simpson, Robinson & Somerville, LLP, Birmingham, for appellant.

Samuel Maples, Birmingham, for appellee.


USX Corporation appeals from a judgment finding that Judith A. Bradley ("the worker") is permanently and totally disabled as a result of two on-the-job accidents and awarding her workers' compensation benefits accordingly.

The worker is a 51-year-old high school graduate who worked for USX from 1978 to 1980 and then from 1990 until April 26, 1999. The worker's first injury occurred while she was performing her job as a bander for USX. A bander uses a control panel to wind up a large coil of sheet steel and to "kick" the coil out of a coiling machine. The bander then uses air tools to "band" the coil with a steel band and to crimp the band so that the coil will not unwind. The bander then sends the coil down a ramp to be picked up by a crane. The coils weigh between 10,000 and 50,000 pounds.

On March 26, 1997, the worker was banding a coil of steel when another coil "looped out" of the coiling machine, came over the coil on which she was working, and struck the worker on her hard hat, knocking her to her hands and knees and knocking her hard hat off. The steel coiling continued to pile on top of her as she tried to hold it off with her hands. Eventually the coiling-machine operator stopped the line and the worker was dragged out from under the coiling, bleeding from her head and complaining of pain to her wrist and knee. She was taken to Lloyd Noland Hospital for treatment. The hospital record indicates that the worker suffered abrasions to her left knee and right forearm and a laceration to her scalp.

After the accident, the worker returned to light duty at USX for three months. She complained to coworkers and family members about pain in her wrist, and she wore a wrist brace at work. She had difficulty performing her duties as a bander because of pain in her wrist and an inability to lift the banding tools. On April 2, 1998, she consulted Dr. Donald W. Autry, an orthopedic surgeon, who noted that the worker had pain over the anterior margin of the ulnar side of the wrist. Dr. Autry ordered nerve-conduction studies to rule out an ulnar nerve entrapment, which would indicate carpal tunnel syndrome. Those studies indicated no evidence of entrapment. Dr. Autry, however, located a lipoma, or fatty tumor, on the ulnar nerve. On April 20, 1998, Dr. Autry performed surgery to remove the tumor and noted some scarring and inflammation around the flexor tendons. He testified by deposition that it was possible that the scarring could have been caused by the worker's March 26, 1997, accident.

In June 1998, the worker was moved to the position of entry end operator at work, a job that did not require lifting; nevertheless, she continued to experience pain in her wrist. The worker testified that she cried at work all the time. Her coworkers testified that they began to notice a change in her personality, from friendly and outgoing to withdrawn and depressed. In June 1998, Dr. Autry referred the worker to Dr. Robert Craddock for a neurological evaluation. Dr. Craddock found no neurological deficit but gave the worker several injections for pain. Dr. Autry continued to treat the worker for complaints of wrist pain, and in February 1999, he ordered another nerve-conduction study. On February 9, 1999, he diagnosed the worker as suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. On April 28, 1999, he performed a carpal tunnel release on the worker's right wrist. When Dr. Autry was asked during his deposition whether the worker's March 26, 1997, accident could have "caused or contributed" to her carpal tunnel syndrome, he answered, "Carpal tunnel syndrome is primarily a repetitive type of problem. But it can be caused by acute problems."

The worker returned to work after a period of recuperation from her carpal tunnel surgery, but she found that she was unable to perform her job duties without pain. She testified that she thought about suicide when she realized that she could not do her job anymore.

The worker's second work-related injury occurred on September 2, 1998, when she stepped into a depression in the floor and fell, fracturing her left lower leg and ankle. She was out of work until January 12, 1999, at which time Dr. Joe Gerald, an orthopedic surgeon, assigned her a 10 percent permanent partial impairment to her left foot. When the worker returned to work, she could no longer wear her regular-sized work boots. She had to wear a brace on her left leg and a larger boot. The worker said that she limped and could not perform her work duties as she had before the September 2, 1998, accident. In addition, she continued to have pain in her wrist. She also began to have panic attacks and was unable to drive. She worked only a few more months before she quit her job at USX on April 26, 1999.

The trial court rendered a judgment finding that, as a combined result of the March 26, 1997, and September 2, 1998, accidents, the worker suffered physical and psychological injuries that rendered her permanently and totally disabled. USX presents three issues on appeal from that judgment.

I. The Standard of Proof for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

USX first argues that the trial court applied the wrong standard of proof to the worker's claim for disability benefits on account of her right carpal tunnel syndrome. It claims that the trial court failed to apply the clear-and-convincing standard of proof as it was required to do by § 25-5-81(c), Ala.Code 1975. That section states:

"The decision of the court shall be based on a preponderance of the evidence as contained in the record of the hearing, except in cases involving injuries which have resulted from gradual deterioration or cumulative physical stress disorders, which shall be deemed compensable only upon a finding of clear and convincing proof that those injuries arose out of and in the course of the employee's employment."

Citing § 25-5-1(9), Ala.Code 1975, USX contends that carpal tunnel syndrome is a "cumulative trauma disorder" for which the clear-and-convincing standard of proof applies. Section 25-5-1(9) states, in pertinent part:

"Injury shall include physical injury caused either by carpal tunnel syndrome disorder or by other cumulative trauma disorder if either disorder arises out of and in the course of the employment...."

The Code definition of "injury" recognizes that carpal tunnel syndrome is usually classified as a "cumulative trauma disorder," or, as Dr. Autry put it, "a repetitive type of problem." But, as Dr. Autry also recognized, carpal tunnel syndrome "can be caused by acute problems." Cf. Thomas v. Elephant Run, 814 P.2d 496, 498 n. 5 (Okla.1991)

(noting that "[a]lthough [carpal tunnel] syndrome is widely associated with occupations involving repetitive hand movements, its causes are varied, including one-time acute trauma to the wrist" (citing Armstrong, "An ergonomics guide to carpal tunnel syndrome," found in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Selected References (March 1989))). See generally Jay M. Zitter, "Workers' Compensation: Recovery for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome," Annot., 14 A.L.R. 5th 1, § 11 (1993).

The trial court specifically found that the worker's carpal tunnel syndrome was caused by an accident and not by repetitive trauma. The judgment states:

"Based on the testimony of the Employee, Dr. Autry's deposition testimony, and the Employee's witnesses, including co-employees Glen Weeks, Leslie Cox, and Ricky Bearden, along with the testimony of the Employee's husband, Danny Bradley, and various medical records, all of which the Court finds credible, the Court finds that the Employee suffered a permanently disabling right wrist injury as a result of the accident of March 26, 1997, that required surgery on April 20, 1998 and April 28, 1999."

Citing the preamble to the 1992 Workers' Compensation Act ("the Act"), as well as § 25-5-81(c) and the second sentence of § 25-5-1(9), Judge Pittman's dissent argues that the Legislature intended to classify carpal tunnel syndrome as a cumulative-physical-stress disorder subject to the clear-and-convincing standard of proof. The dissent maintains that although it is medically possible for carpal tunnel syndrome to arise from sudden trauma, it is not legally possible for carpal tunnel syndrome to be classified under the Act as anything other than a cumulative-physical-stress disorder. That argument is unpersuasive.

"In cases of doubt in respect to an ambiguous legislative context, the preamble of an act must be resorted to to ascertain the intent [of the Legislature] and resolve the doubt." Hamrick v. Thompson, 276 Ala. 605, 609, 165 So.2d 386, 390 (1964). The preamble to the Act makes it unmistakably clear that the Legislature meant to subject cumulative-stress or gradual-deterioration disorders to a higher standard of proof. In that context, and only in that context, the preamble mentions carpal tunnel disorder as an example of a disorder that should not be compensable unless it is clearly and convincingly established to be job-related. The Legislature simply did not mention its intent with regard to the proof requirement that must be met when carpal tunnel syndrome has been caused by an "accident," or an acute trauma.

"If the legislative intent is clearly expressed in the preamble, and the body of the act is so constructed as to render its meaning and intent uncertain; and if the act admits of two constructions, one in accord with the intent clearly expressed in the preamble, and the other in conflict with it, courts should adopt that construction which harmonizes with the preamble."

White v. Levy, 91 Ala. 175, 177, 8 So. 563, 564 (1890).

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