Younghans v. Johnson Bros. Liquor, et al.

Younghans v. Johnson Bros. Liquor, et al., No. WC16-6017 (WCCA May 12, 2017).

The employee in this matter sustained three separate injuries involving his cervical spine/neck along with other body parts. The first injury was a work-related incident occurring on March 30, 1988 during the course of his employment with Johnson Bros. Liquor, while lifting a case of liquor that was glued to a pallet. The employee experienced a snap in his neck. He underwent an anterior cervical fusion and discectomy at the C5-6 level in August 1989. At a prior hearing, the employee indicated he continued to experience some neck problems, but was able to engage in many of his usual activities.

The employee was then involved in a non-work related motor vehicle accident on September 21, 1993, resulting in neck pain, headaches, and mid and low back pain, with a diagnosed whiplash injury.  Imaging in 1996 revealed mild degeneration above and below his prior C5-6 fusion. The employee began complaining of difficulty engaging in his usual activities. Additional imaging in 1999 was unchanged, except for a small bulge at C6-7. The employee indicated he did not fully recover from this accident.

In 1999, the employee asserted a claim for medical benefits, including payment of bills and out of pocket expenses, alleging they were related to his prior 1988 work injury. The employee did not appeal the Findings & Order determining that his prior work injury was not a substantial contributing factor to his current condition.

The employee sustained a third injury on April 30, 2014 with Midwest Maintenance & Mechanical, when he slipped and fell down stairs, injuring his neck, left shoulder, elbow, wrist, and fingers. Imaging again revealed a stable C5-6 fusion, with disc degeneration at C6-7, and mild degeneration above the fusion. The employee also testified that he did not recover from this injury.

Three medical providers opined on the causation of the employee’s current condition. Dr. Friedland opined 50% of responsibility fell on the 1988 work injury, and 50% was attributable to his 1993 motor vehicle accident. Dr. Monsein opined that both the 1988 and 2014 injuries were substantial contributing causes to his cervical condition. Dr. Zeller opined that the employee’s current symptoms were related to an Arnold-Chiari Type I malformation, which is a congenital condition, unrelated to any work injury. This malformation was revealed in an October 1999 MRI. Dr. Zeller further indicated the 1988 work injury was not a substantial contributing factor to his current condition, but that setting work restrictions for the employee’s condition was not within her expertise.

The employee filed a Claim Petition in December 2015 alleging entitlement to benefits related to both the 1988 and 2014 work injuries. In his Findings & Order, dated October 12, 2016, Judge Marshall denied the employee’s claims, indicating he “fail[ed] to show the 1988 injury [was] responsible for the employee’s ongoing symptoms” and that the 2014 was a temporary aggravation of his prior cervical condition. The employee only appealed the findings related to the 1988 injury, asserting the compensation judge failed to acknowledge the permanent nature of the 1988 injury, that Dr. Zeller’s opinion lacked foundation and was relied upon in error, and the compensation judge applied the incorrect legal standard regarding the MVA being a superseding cause.

The WCCA notes that the standard of review on appeal is whether the compensation judge’s determination is supported by substantial evidence; findings of fact are to be upheld unless clearly erroneous. Further, the WCCA may review questions of law de novo. The WCCA affirmed the compensation judge’s decision. Relating to causation, as Dr. Zeller did have adequate foundation in providing a causation opinion, and the fact that the employee sustained a permanent injury in 1988 does not necessitate finding that his current condition is causally related to such an injury. Further, the WCCA determined that the compensation judge did not apply an incorrect legal standard in indicating the MVA changed his condition and severed the tie to the prior 1988 work injury, without considering whether the employee’s action were unreasonable, negligent or dangerous, pursuant to Eide v. Whirlpool. But rather, the compensation judge merely determined that the MVA and its impact on the employee supported the fact that the employee’s current condition was too attenuated from the 1988 work injury to be causally related.