Can an injured worker who already received workers’ compensation benefits collect on a claim for a back injury from the same incident?
The Court of Appeals of Arkansas said he couldn’t and upheld a lower court and Workers’ Compensation Commission ruling that argued the worker’s testimony wasn’t credible.
However, one appeals court judge, while “reluctantly concurring” with the decision, found the credibility ruling was outweighed by medical evidence.
Claim accepted for rib injuries
Carl Watson worked for Highland Pellets LLC as a maintenance technician.
On Dec. 7, 2018, he was working on a piece of mobile equipment, lost his footing on the stairs and fell about nine feet, landing with his upper back on the bottom steps and with his feet folded over his head.
He was taken to a local hospital, x-rayed and treated for multiple rib fractures on his right side.
Highland Pellets accepted his workers’ compensation claim for the injury.
Spine injury found during CT scan
Watson continued to have pain and was examined Jan. 22, 2019, to evaluate the need for surgery.
However, the examining doctor found that surgery wasn’t an option since more damage could be done in trying to repair the ribs. Instead, the doctor recommended nerve blocks and pain management.
During treatment for the pain, Watson also complained of pain in his chest, so a CT scan was ordered.
The scan revealed a compression fracture in part of Watson’s spine, and he was referred to a nurse practitioner who ordered in an MRI.
Another doctor reviewed the MRI and recommended avoiding surgery and continuing with pain treatment. He said Watson could return to work with no restrictions.
Meanwhile, Watson filed a workers’ compensation claim for the back injury, which Highland Pellets contested.
Two doctors connect back injury to work incident
Watson had a follow-up appointment Oct. 10, 2019, with another doctor at the same practice who noted Watson continued to complain of back pain and that he denied having a history of previous back complaints.
This doctor also noted that the work injury may have contributed to the compression fracture, which showed signs of being a pre-existing degenerative disc disease.
On Nov. 12, 2019, yet another doctor weighed in on the back pain, agreeing that there was a relationship between it and the workplace injury.
‘An unreliable effort’
Watson continued pain treatment with no improvement, and underwent a functional capacity exam on July 10, 2020.
The evaluator claimed that Watson “had demonstrated an unreliable effort,” finding his exam results didn’t represent an accurate picture of his overall physical abilities. Watson claimed pre-existing arthritis in his ankles and hands affected his performance.
Previous injuries weren’t reported
During a lower court hearing, Watson testified he’d been injured in a 2007 workplace incident that saw him miss work for six months and had been in several car crashes since the 2018 injury.
His medical records didn’t have information on any of these incidents.
An administrative law judge found Watson’s back problems weren’t work-related since the majority of the medical records didn’t support that fact and because Watson’s testimony wasn’t credible.
The Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission agreed.
Credibility determination set in stone
On appeal, Watson argued the judge and Commission erred in finding he failed to present enough evidence to support his claim.
But the appeals court upheld the lower court decision because it was bound by the Commission’s opinion on Watson’s credibility.
As fact-finder in workers’ comp cases, the Commission is responsible for resolving issues of credibility, and the appeals court found the Commission had a substantial basis for denying Watson’s claim.
Should’ve claimed aggravation of pre-existing injury
But in a concurring statement, one appeals court judge said his agreement with the majority was reluctant.
Watson never complained about or had been treated for back pain before his 2018 work injury “yet the ALJ and two of the commissioners apparently chose to believe (Watson) must have had prior back problems. After all, he had done manual labor all of his life.”
The judge said Watson’s failure to mention past incidents – that had nothing to do with his back pain – should’ve had no bearing on his credibility.
Instead, the Commission should have focused more on the medical evidence, which would still have led to a denial of benefits.
However, the judge mentions that Watson may have had a ruling in his favor if he’d presented his case as an aggravation of a preexisting injury from the beginning.