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Vawter v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

Supreme Court of Idaho, Boise

February 7, 2014

Michael VAWTER, Claimant-Respondent-Cross Appellant,
v.
UNITED PARCEL SERVICE, INC., Employer, and Liberty Insurance Corporation, Surety, Defendants-Appellants-Cross Respondents, and State of Idaho Industrial Special Indemnity Fund, Defendant-Respondent-Cross Appellant.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Breen Veltman Wilson, Boise, for appellants. Susan R. Veltman argued.

Augustine Law Offices, PLLC, Boise, for respondent ISIF. Paul J. Augustine argued.

Ellsworth Kallas & DeFranco, PLLC, Boise, for respondent Michael Vawter. Rick D. Kallas argued.

J. JONES, Justice.

This appeal arises out of a worker's compensation case in which Michael Vawter sought compensation from his employer, United Parcel Service (UPS), for a back injury he claims he suffered as a result of his employment. In turn, UPS attempted to establish that Vawter did not suffer a compensable injury, but if he did the State of Idaho's Industrial Special Indemnity Fund (ISIF) is liable for a portion of his benefits. Ultimately, the Idaho Industrial Commission found that Vawter was totally and permanently disabled and that UPS was solely responsible for Vawter's disability benefits because it was estopped from arguing Vawter had a preexisting condition, a necessary element of ISIF liability. UPS timely appealed, arguing that (1) the accident causing Vawter's injury did not arise out of his employment, (2) the Commission improperly applied the doctrine of quasi-estoppel to prevent it from asserting a preexisting condition, and (3) the Commission improperly awarded Vawter attorney fees. Vawter and ISIF both cross-appealed. Vawter contends the Commission improperly applied the doctrine of collateral estoppel to prevent him from recovering for all of his medical care.

II.

PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Vawter began working for UPS as a delivery driver in 1983. Throughout his employment with UPS, Vawter's job duties have included loading trucks with packages, driving to various locations, and delivering packages. During the last twelve years of his employment, Vawter primarily worked out of Cascade and would drive his personal vehicle from his home to the Arnold Aviation (AA) facility at the Cascade Airport to load his truck with packages. After completing his deliveries each day, Vawter would park his UPS truck at AA and leave his DIAD computer, an electronic device, inside AA's facility. The DIAD had to be stored inside the building because its batteries would fail if exposed to the truck's cold conditions overnight.

On the morning of December 18, 2009, Vawter reported for work at the AA facility. The temperature was approximately 20 degrees below zero, so Vawter started his truck to let it warm up and then went inside the AA facility. Once inside, Vawter clocked in,

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sat down, and bent over to tie his boot laces. While bending over, Vawter felt a pop and pain in his low back. After Vawter sought medical treatment, he was diagnosed by Dr. Roy Tyler Frizzell with a herniated disc and early cauda equina symptoms. Subsequently, Dr. Frizzell performed two surgeries on Vawter's back— one in January and the other in July of 2010.

On March 15, 2010, Vawter filed a worker's compensation complaint with the Idaho Industrial Commission, alleging he suffered a low back injury due to an accident that arose out of and in the course of his employment with UPS. UPS denied this claim for multiple reasons, including its contention that Vawter's injury did not result from an accident arising out of his employment. On September 28, 2010, a hearing was held by a Commission Referee to determine whether Vawter suffered a compensable injury. The Referee made and filed his proposed Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Recommendation. The Commission chose not to adopt the Referee's recommendation and issued its own Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order (5-17-11 Order), holding that Vawter (1) suffered an injury resulting from an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment with UPS; (2) was entitled to temporary total disability benefits from the date of the accident until December 6, 2010, the date he was declared medically stable; (3) was entitled to payment of his medical expenses, totaling $149,033.68; and (4) was not entitled to an award of attorney fees.

In August 2011, without conceding that Vawter was totally and permanently disabled, UPS filed a complaint against ISIF to establish ISIF's liability for a portion of Vawter's benefits, which ISIF denied. On May 17, 2012, the full Commission held a hearing to determine whether Vawter was totally and permanently disabled and, if so, whether ISIF was liable for a portion of Vawter's benefits. The Commission entered an order on September 28, 2012, holding: (1) UPS was liable for all of Vawter's medical expenses; (2) Vawter was totally and permanently disabled under the odd-lot doctrine; (3) Vawter had a preexisting physical impairment of 7% of the whole person from a 1990 low back injury; (4) Vawter's 7% low back impairment met all the elements of ISIF liability; but (5) UPS was estopped from asserting any position on Vawter's " preexisting physical impairment inconsistent with the 0% PPI rating" assessed by UPS' doctor in 1991; and (6) consequently, ISIF was not liable for any portion of Vawter's total and permanent disability. On December 5, 2012, the Commission issued an errata to correct typographical and factual errors in its September order and issued an Amended Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order to incorporate the errata's corrections (12-5-12 Order).

UPS filed a Motion for Reconsideration of the Commission's decision. The Commission issued an Order on Reconsideration on December 10, 2012, affirming its prior finding as to quasi-estoppel, but holding that under the doctrine of collateral estoppel Vawter was barred from raising the issue of his entitlement to recovery of an additional $24,627.80 in medical expenses he incurred between the date of the injury and the date of the hearing before the Referee. Vawter then filed a Motion for Reconsideration of the Order on Reconsideration, which the Commission denied. UPS timely appealed, and Vawter and ISIF each cross-appealed.

III.

ISSUES ON APPEAL

I. Did Vawter suffer an injury resulting from an accident arising out of his employment?
II. Is ISIF responsible for any portion of Vawter's disability benefits?
III. Did the Commission improperly apply the doctrine of collateral estoppel to prevent Vawter from recovering all of the medical benefits UPS had previously denied him?
IV. Was Vawter entitled to attorney fees below?

IV.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

When this Court reviews a decision from the Industrial Commission, it exercises free

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review over questions of law but reviews questions of fact only to determine whether substantial and competent evidence supports the Commission's findings. Ogden v. Thompson, 128 Idaho 87, 88, 910 P.2d 759, 760 (1996). Substantial and competent evidence is " relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion." Boise Orthopedic Clinic v. Idaho State Ins. Fund, 128 Idaho 161, 164, 911 P.2d 754, 757 (1996). The Commission's conclusions on the credibility and weight of evidence will not be disturbed unless the conclusions are clearly erroneous. Zapata v. J.R. Simplot Co., 132 Idaho 513, 515, 975 P.2d 1178, 1180 (1999). " The decision that grounds exist for awarding a claimant attorney fees [under I.C. ยง 72-804] is a factual determination which rests with the Commission." Poss v. Meeker Mach. Shop, 109 Idaho 920, 926, 712 P.2d 621, 627 (1985).

V.

ANALYSIS


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