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Webb v. Wal-Mart Associates, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

December 12, 2018



          Wells & Wells, PLLC, by: Phillip Wells, for appellant.

          Bassett Law Firm LLP, by: Curtis L. Nebben, for appellees.

          LARRYD. VAUGHT, Judge.

         Tina Webb appeals the opinion of the Arkansas Workers' Compensation Commission (Commission) finding that she failed to prove that she sustained a compensable low-back injury while in the course and scope of her employment with Wal-Mart Associates, Inc. (Wal-Mart). On appeal, Webb contends that the Commission's opinion is not supported by substantial evidence. We affirm.

         On November 9, 2015, Webb, a Wal-Mart department manager, was working on a ladder when she fell six feet to the floor. She suffered a significant fracture injury to her left tibia that required four surgeries. Wal-Mart accepted Webb's leg injury as compensable and paid all benefits related to the injury.

         While still receiving medical treatment for her left-leg injury, Webb first sought medical treatment for low-back complaints on January 21, 2016. She sought additional medical treatment for low-back pain on January 25 and 27, 2016; July 21, 2016; and October 18, 2016. Webb eventually requested a referral to neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Abraham, who had performed L4-5 back surgery on Webb in 2013. Dr. Abraham saw Webb on December 19, 2016, and his note of that date states that she presented with low-back and left-leg pain caused by a fall off a six-foot ladder at work. He recommended an MRI, which was performed on January 20, 2017. Webb returned to Dr. Abraham on February 1, 2017, and in that report Dr. Abraham states that the MRI showed interspace narrowing with minimal post-op changes on the left side at L4-5 with what appeared to be a recurrent disc herniation. He recommended an L4-5 decompressive lumbar laminectomy.

         At Wal-Mart's request, Dr. Carlos Roman of Southern Regional Anesthesiology Consultants, PLLC, performed an independent medical evaluation (IME) on Webb on February 3, 2017. Dr. Roman's IME report concluded that Webb's back "injury is not related to the fall in that she had a pre-existing condition of back pain and degenerative disc disease, thus, the back surgery in 2013."

         On February 16, 2017, Dr. Abraham performed an L4-5 decompressive lumbar laminectomy. The following day, Dr. Abraham opined that Webb's November 9, 2015 fall aggravated her preexisting back condition. When Webb sought additional medical treatment and temporary total-disability benefits for her low-back injury, Wal-Mart controverted her claim, contending that the low-back injury did not arise out of her November 9, 2015 fall.

         At the hearing before the administrative law judge (ALJ), Webb, who was forty-eight years old at the time, testified that following her back surgery in 2013, she missed only six weeks of work and felt "wonderful." She stated that before her 2015 fall at Wal-Mart, she did not have any back discomfort or pain; she did not take any medicine or prescriptions for her back; and she did not miss any time from work because of back pain.

         Webb also testified about her fall from the ladder at work, the significant injury she sustained to her left leg, and the extensive medical treatment she received for her leg injury. She stated that she first noted discomfort in her back while she was in the hospital receiving treatment for her leg. At that time, she believed the back discomfort was due to being bedbound. She said that on January 21, 2016, she turned over in bed at home and experienced "a huge pain" in her low back that made her scream and cry. She stated that she went to the emergency room that day and was eventually seen by Dr. Abraham. Webb said that Dr. Abraham performed L4-5 surgery in February 2017, and she has not been released from his care. Webb testified that the pain medication she took for her leg may have masked her back injury.

         Dr. Abraham testified, via deposition, that when Webb first presented in 2016, she told him that she had been suffering low-back pain since her November 2015 fall. Based on that history, it was his opinion that the fall aggravated her preexisting low-back injury and caused a recurrent disc herniation. When advised that Webb's low-back complaints did not arise until three months after the fall, Dr. Abraham testified that he could not state when the recurrent disc herniation occurred. However, he stated that it was his opinion that because Webb had very few low-back symptoms prior to November 2015 and the fall from the ladder involved significant force, the recurrent disc herniation at L4-5 was more likely than not caused by the fall rather than simply turning over in bed.

         The ALJ issued an opinion on October 10, 2017, finding that Webb suffered a compensable aggravation of a preexisting low-back injury as a result of the November 9, 2015 fall while working for Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart appealed, and on April 24, 2018, the Commission reversed the ALJ's decision, finding that Webb did not sustain a low-back injury when she fell from the ladder on November 9, 2015. The Commission found that Webb suffered from a preexisting low-back injury; there were no reports of a low-back injury immediately following her fall or for three months thereafter; when she initially reported her back complaints, she did not relate them to the November fall; she inaccurately reported to Dr. Abraham that she had been suffering from low-back pain since she fell, and thus, she lacked credibility; Dr. Abraham's opinion was based on Webb's inaccurate history and was entitled to no credit; and the IME finding that the back injury was not related to the November 2015 fall was credible. This appeal, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the Commission's opinion, followed.

         In appeals involving claims for workers' compensation, our court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commission's decision and affirms the decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Grothaus v. Vista Health, L.L.C., 2011 Ark.App. 130, at 6, 382 S.W.3d 1, 5. Substantial evidence exists if reasonable minds could reach the Commission's conclusion. Id., 382 S.W.3d at 5. The issue is not whether the appellate court might have reached a different result from the Commission; if reasonable minds could reach the result found by the Commission, the appellate court must affirm. Id. at 6-7, 382 S.W.3d at 5. When the Commission denies a claim because of the claimant's failure to meet his or her burden of ...

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