An employee suffered neck injures twice at work. Later, he needed neck surgery. The employer argued his work injuries and the neck surgery weren’t related. Did workers’ comp pay for the neck surgery?
Edward Jordan worked for Dean Foods in Idaho as a milk delivery driver.
In May 2006, Jordan suffered an injury while moving a stack of milk containers. He felt sudden pain in his neck and shoulders with numbness running down his arms. An MRI showed disk degeneration in his cervical spine and a disk bulge. He was treated for four months and his symptoms subsided. He didn’t have any permanent work restrictions.
In January 2010, Jordan was using a dolly to hook up trailers when he again felt sudden pain in his neck and shoulders along with numbness in his arms. About two weeks later, he told his doctor his neck was no longer giving him problems.
The next time he reported that his neck bothered him was in July 2011. When visiting his family doctor, Jordan said he had neck pain that gets no better or worse.
Jordan saw an orthopedic surgeon in August 2011 who noted that Jordan’s symptoms never fully resolved. The surgeon attributed Jordan’s neck issues to the 2006 injury. He later modified his opinion to include the 2010 injury in the cause. The surgeon recommended a cervical decompression and fusion. The doctor wrote:
“the patient’s symptoms appear clearly related to his industrial injury and I believe medically more probable than not his need for a C4 to C6 anterior cervical decompression and fusion is related to his industrial injury of 5/16/06.”
An adjuster handling Jordan’s workers’ comp claim for the proposed surgery scheduled an independent medical exam by a doctor who specializes in physical medicine and rehab. That doctor concluded Jordan’s symptoms were more probably related to pre-existing degenerative cervical arthritis that was unrelated to the 2006 and 2010 injuries. The doctor explained that the disk degeneration in Jordan’s cervical spine was consistent with ongoing degeneration rather than an acute injury.
In June 2012, Jordan underwent surgery. The surgeon imposed lifting restrictions for Jordan. Dean Foods terminated his employment when it wasn’t able to make reasonable accommodations.
The Idaho Industrial Commission decided Jordan failed to prove that his 2012 cervical spine surgery “was necessitated, in whole or in part, by either the 2006 or 2010 industrial accidents.” Jordan appealed, and the Idaho Supreme Court recently decided his case.
Who is most credible?
The state’s high court noted that the Commission said the most credible opinion was that of the doctor who performed the independent medical exam. That doctor explained while the 2006 injury caused a disk bulge, that injury had healed and Jordan’s cervical spine degenerative changes were “years in the making.”
On top of that, the Commission found Jordan himself wasn’t credible because he changed his story about his neck pain over the years. At one point he said his neck pain had gone away. At other times he said it had never gone away.
Jordan also suggested that his orthopedic surgeon’s opinion should have been given more weight because the doctor who performed the independent medical exam was “only” a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehab. The court responded:
“we have never gone so far as to suggest that the opinions of practitioners of one medical specialty are entitled to greater weight than the opinions of other physicians … as the factfinder, the Commission is free to determine the weight to be given to the testimony of physicians.”
The Idaho Supreme Court upheld the Commission’s finding that Jordan wasn’t entitled to additional workers’ comp benefits for his work injuries because he failed to prove his cervical spine surgery was necessitated in whole or in part by those injuries.
(Edward Jordan v. Dean Foods, Supreme Court of Idaho, No. 43281, 9/9/16)