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A.E.R.T., Inc. v. Estrada

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division I

December 14, 2016

A.E.R.T., INC. AND NATIONAL UNION FIRE INSURANCE, APPELLANTS
v.
MARIA ESTRADA, APPELLEE

         APPEAL FROM THE ARKANSAS WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION [NO. G208219]

         AFFIRMED ON DIRECT APPEAL; AFFIRMED ON CROSS-APPEAL

          Worley, Wood & Parrish, P.A., by: Jarros S. Parrish, for appellants.

          Tolley & Brooks, P.A., by: Evelyn E. Brooks, for appellee.

          BRANDON J. HARRISON, Judge

         In 2012, Maria Estrada claimed she suffered a gradual-onset back injury while working for AERT, Inc. The Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission denied her claim, reasoning that the statute of limitations had run on her claim. We reversed the Commission's statute-of-limitations decision and remanded the case in November 2014. Estrada v. Aert, Inc., 2014 Ark.App. 652, 449 S.W.3d 327. The Commission, in turn, remanded Estrada's claim to an administrative law judge to "adjudicate the case in accordance with the instructions from the Court of Appeals."

         The case was not reopened for new evidence, so the law judge decided it based on the same evidentiary record the parties had developed. On remand, the law judge decided that Estrada had failed to prove that she suffered a gradual-onset low back-injury around 1 February 2012, because she had "failed to provide medical evidence in the form of objective medical findings to support her claim." The law judge reasoned that no medical records indicated that Estrada's issues were work related and that no objective medical findings connected her low-back pain and the need for surgery to her work.

         The Commission reversed the law judge's decision and held that Estrada had "established a compensable injury supported by objective findings, namely, the spasm shown in the December 2011 MRI and the disc bulge shown in the August 2012 CT." The Commission found that these objective findings were causally related to the compensable injury and not caused by a prior injury or preexisting condition. The Commission made AERT responsible for benefits from 28 September 2012 forward. AERT appealed the Commission's decision. Estrada cross-appealed.

         I. AERT's Appeal

         AERT argues that the Commission viewed the evidence for Estrada instead of weighing the documentary and testimonial evidence impartially. As AERT correctly notes, "[t]he injured party bears the burden of proof in establishing entitlement to benefits under the Workers' Compensation Act and must sustain that burden by a preponderance of the evidence." Hughes Sch. Dist. v. Bain, 2010 Ark.App. 204, at 4, 374 S.W.3d 173, 176. But we disagree that there is a burden-of-proof error. Here are the Commission's own words:

In the present matter, the Full Commission finds that the claimant proved by a preponderance of the evidence that she sustained a compensable injury. The claimant became employed with the respondents in 2005 and her work was labor-intensive. The claimant's work duties for the respondent employer included lifting and stacking wood, 12 hours per shift. The claimant began seeking medical treatment for back pain in December 2009. The treating physician noted at that time that the claimant was suffering from pain as a result of "standing all day." The record does not indicate that the claimant's back pain resulted from any condition other than the claimant's work for the respondents.
The claimant began treating with Dr. Sewell for back pain in 2011. Dr. Sewell returned the claimant to work, "No bending, twisting, or stacking." The record therefore indicates that Dr. Sewell connected the claimant's back pain to her work for the respondents.

         The Commission specifically recited that Estrada had met her burden of proof, and it correctly identified the burden. Regarding the Commission's statement that "[t]he record does not indicate that the claimant's back pain resulted from any condition other than the claimant's work for the respondents, " that is a causation-related conclusion that it made based on all the evidence before it.

         AERT claims that the Commission "manufactured a medical opinion concerning causation" and relied on two statements in Estrada's medical records that "simply do not exist." AERT rightly observes that the Commission wrongly cited to a 2009 report from Dr. Lawrence Schemel. But the oversight is immaterial on ...


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