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Floyd Blaine Fife v. the Home Depot

September 2, 2011


Appeal from the Industrial Commission of the State of Idaho.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eismann, Justice.

Idaho Falls,

2011 Opinion No. 92

Stephen W. Kenyon, Clerk

The order of the Industrial Commission is affirmed.

This is an appeal from a decision of the Industrial Commission finding that claimant had failed to prove that his medical condition requiring back surgery was caused by an industrial accident rather than by the pre-existing degenerative changes in his thoracic and lumbar spine. Because the Commission, as the trier of fact, is not required to accept the testimony of the claimant's treating physician, we affirm its decision.

I. Factual Background

On March 4, 2008, Lloyd Fife (Claimant) filed a workers' compensation complaint alleging that on February 22, 2008, while working at The Home Depot, Inc. (Employer), he had injured his back while lifting a dryer to obtain it for a customer. Claimant sought medical care on February 25, 2008. His x-rays revealed severe degenerative changes in his thoracic and lumbar spine with disc narrowing, severe degenerative disc disease, and degenerative arthritis in

the lower lumbar facet joints. His physician released Claimant with a fifteen-pound lifting restriction and referred him to a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist. Claimant cancelled his appointment with that specialist and instead consulted with an orthopedic surgeon on March 3, 2008. A lumbar spine MRI showed spinal stenosis at L3-4, moderate narrowing of the foramina on L3-4, L4-5 and L5-S1, and moderate facet degenerative change and hypertrophy at L2-3, L3-4, L4-5, and L5-S1. The surgeon's primary diagnosis was degenerative disc disease, and he recommended a five-level decompression and fusion to remedy a stenosis at L2. On March 11, 2008, Claimant underwent surgery consisting of a five-level (L2 to S1) decompression and fusion.

On March 26, 2008, National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh (Surety) learned during a telephone conversation with Claimant that he had undergone the surgery. After obtaining medical records related to the surgery, Surety arranged for an independent medical examination of Claimant, which was done on June 19, 2008.

The physician who performed the independent medical examination concluded that Claimant's need for surgery was not related to his industrial accident. The physician noted that the MRI did not show any evidence of acute injury, fracture, or dislocation consistent with an industrial accident or injury. Claimant's surgeon opined that Claimant's industrial accident was related to his need for surgery because it exacerbated his condition and Claimant felt an increase in symptoms which did not subside.

An evidentiary hearing was held before a hearing officer on November 5, 2009, but the hearing officer left the employment of the Industrial Commission before submitting proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Commission then reviewed the record and issued its findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order on June 8, 2010. It found the testimony of Claimant's surgeon unpersuasive, characterizing it as "unclear, to the point of opacity, as to the actual nature of the injury which he claims is responsible for the need for surgery." When the surgeon had been asked whether he could point to any objective pathological findings in any of the diagnostic studies he had performed on Claimant that relate to recent trauma, the surgeon answered that he could not. The Commission found convincing the testimony of the physician who conducted the independent medical examination of Claimant. That physician opined that in the absence of any objective evidence of injury, it was more likely that Claimant's pain resulted from a nonspecific low back strain suffered as a result of lifting the dryer. In the physician's opinion, Claimant's surgery was wholly related to his pre-existing condition and not to the low back strain caused by lifting the dryer.

The Commission concluded that Claimant had failed to prove that the medical condition for which he had surgery was causally related to the industrial accident or that the accident aggravated his pre-existing degenerative condition. The Commission found that Claimant was only entitled to benefits for his initial medical visit on February 25, 2008. It denied benefits for his later medical treatment, including the surgery, ...

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