Can a worker suffering from back pain after preventing a client’s fall collect workers’ compensation benefits if there’s no medical evidence of a back injury other than her prescription medications?
The Arkansas Court of Appeals upheld a state workers’ compensation commission ruling that denied the worker’s claim because she failed to meet her burden of proof.
Felt her back tighten while easing obese client to floor
Barbara Howell worked for Arkadelphia Human Development Center for more than 30 years. On July 8, 2020, less than a month before she was scheduled to retire, she injured her back while assisting an obese client who needed to get up from a couch.
Howell was helping the client move into a standing position when the client’s legs began to buckle. She grabbed the client to ease her to the ground and help break her fall. As Howell did this, she felt a sudden tightness in her back.
No mention of back injury on claim
On July 9, 2020, Howell was treated at the Arkadelphia Medical Clinic by her family doctor. The doctor reported that Howell had dizziness with left-sided chest discomfort and a history of dizziness and syncope. The report said that Howell admitted lifting some clients at her job off the floor.
The next day, Howell went to the emergency room for chest pains and palpitations, which were due to a pulled muscle in her chest. A July 16, 2022 follow-up appointment resulted in a diagnosis of acute midline low back pain without sciatica and lower abdominal pain. Howell received various prescriptions, including one for muscle spasms.
Howell returned to work on July 22, 2020 and filed a workers’ compensation claim. She didn’t mention a back injury on the claim. Arkadelphia initially accepted the claim as compensable. That same day, Howell was examined by another doctor who diagnosed low back pain with “no palpable spasm.” The doctor prescribed more medications and noted that the back pain was work-related based on Howell’s description of the injury incident.
MRI reveals no major back or spine problems
Several days later, an MRI of Howell’s lumbar spine and lower back revealed no evidence of an acute injury, normal spine alignment, and only moderate and mild low back pain.
Arkadelphia’s insurance carrier investigated Howell’s case, which led to denial of the claim going forward due to a lack of objective medical findings.
A January 2022 hearing in front of an administrative law judge resulted in a ruling that Howell failed to meet her burden of proof that she sustained a compensable injury as a result of the July 8 incident. The Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission agreed, finding that Howell failed to “establish a compensable injury by medical evidence supported by objective findings.”
Court: Prescriptions aren’t enough to satisfy burden of proof
On appeal, Howell argued that the commission’s decision wasn’t supported by substantial evidence. She pointed to her several prescriptions for back pain medication from various doctors as proof of her injury.
In upholding the commission’s decision, the Arkansas Court of Appeals pointed out that Howell’s MRI was normal and that her doctors reported no muscle spasms in their diagnoses. The medical evidence wasn’t sufficient to prove that she suffered a back injury from the July 8, 2020 incident.
The appeals court also found that the prescriptions for lower back pain weren’t sufficient medical evidence to satisfy Howell’s burden of proof.