Can a long-haul truck driver get workers’ compensation benefits for an unexplained fall he suffered while walking outside of his employer’s facility?
Arizona’s First Division Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the trucker couldn’t collect benefits because he failed to prove his fall, which was caused by a pre-existing degenerative condition, was job-related.
Didn’t notice any problems until hours after fall
David Peterson was a long-haul truck driver at Navajo Express. While walking outside of Navajo’s facility, his leg suddenly gave out, causing him to fall, hit a wall with his right shoulder and collapse to the sidewalk.
Peterson was initially in shock and felt embarrassment rather than pain, so he walked to his truck, drove away and began making deliveries. After one delivery stop, he took a mandatory 10-hour break and slept in his truck.
When he woke up, Peterson felt sluggish and his arms and legs felt heavy. A doctor diagnosed him with cervical stenosis and cervical myelopathy, requiring surgery. Peterson filed for workers’ compensation benefits, claiming that the injury from his fall was compensable.
Navajo and its insurance carrier denied the claim, leading to a hearing before an administrative law judge.
Worker argues injury covered under neutral risk doctrine
In court, Peterson argued that his injury happened at work and should be covered under the neutral risk doctrine, which treats unexplained falls as compensable accidents. Navajo claimed that Peterson fell because of his pre-existing spine condition, which meant his injury wasn’t compensable.
Peterson testified that he had no explanation for why he fell. He also stated that he had no history of his leg giving out unexpectedly. A Navajo supervisor testified that Peterson walked in an unusual manner since at least 2013, which Peterson told him in the past was due to back problems.
A medical expert for Peterson admitted that the truck driver had back problems dating back to 2013 due to a previous fall and a spinal fusion. The expert said Peterson’s spinal cord was severely compressed and compromised from what was “likely a degenerative and progressive process.” However, the expert claimed that Peterson didn’t have a pre-existing condition that would explain the workplace fall.
Navajo’s medical expert disagreed, explaining that Peterson had cervical myelopathy which presents with a high degree of variation along with a progressive decline in neurologic function of the extremities. This is a condition that’s often misdiagnosed and leads to a subtle loss of function in the arms or legs.
The judge found Navajo’s medical expert more persuasive and denied Peterson’s claim, leading to an appeal.
Judge’s decision based on evidence, ‘well-founded’ testimony
On review, Peterson argued that the administrative law judge found that his testimony “made no difference” and erred by failing to include an express finding regarding Peterson’s credibility.
The appeals court disagreed, finding that the judge sufficiently recognized the importance of Peterson’s testimony while basing his decision on the expert testimony and medical evidence that was the most convincing.
Because the judge determined that Navajo’s expert’s testimony was “most probably correct and well-founded” and was supported by the evidence, the appeals court found there was no error and affirmed the denial of benefits.