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Lonoke Exceptional School, Inc. v. Coffman

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Divisions I, II, IV

February 13, 2019



          Barber Law Firm PLLC, by: Karen H. McKinney, for appellants.

          Laura Beth York, for appellee.


         This is an appeal from the Workers' Compensation Commission's (the Commission's) decision awarding benefits to Don Coffman. On appeal, Lonoke Exceptional School, Inc. (Lonoke School), argues that the Commission (1) arbitrarily disregarded medical evidence and (2) erred in finding that Coffman established that he sustained a compensable injury supported by objective findings. We affirm.

         Coffman works as a bus driver for Lonoke School. On April 6, 2017, Coffman fell in a gravel parking lot and injured his left shoulder. Lonoke School initially accepted the claim as compensable and began paying benefits; however, after Coffman sought expenses for surgery, Lonoke School denied liability. The case proceeded to a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ).

         At the hearing, Coffman testified that after he fell on April 6, he immediately reported the injury and that Lonoke School sent him to North Cabot Family Medicine. He was referred to Dr. Stewart, an orthopedic surgeon, and he had an MRI. The MRI showed a tear in his left shoulder; consequently, he had surgery, specifically a reverse shoulder arthroplasty. Coffman testified that he did not have any problems with his left shoulder before the accident. He noted that he had just passed a physical examination for the Department of Transportation on March 27, 2017. He admitted that he had injured his right shoulder in 2012 and that he had a procedure on October 30, 2012, for that injury. Coffman stated that he wanted to return to work as soon as his doctor released him.

         The records from North Cabot Family Medicine on the day of the accident show that Coffman reported left-shoulder pain and left-knee pain and had abrasions on both hands. The physician's diagnosis included "sprain of left shoulder joint." Dr. Stewart's records from Coffman's examination on April 19, 2017, reflect that Coffman "is here with a new problem with the left shoulder. Two weeks ago he had a fall at work and injured his shoulder . . . . He says before this he did not have a shoulder problem." In Dr. Stewart's report following Coffman's MRI, he opined that the findings "do not correlate with an injury that occurred on April 6, 2017. These are very old, chronic problems, and to fix this a reverse shoulder arthroplasty is needed, just like the opposite side needed 5 years ago."

         The ALJ denied Coffman benefits. Coffman appealed, and the Commission reversed, finding that Coffman sustained a compensable injury to his left shoulder. The Commission rejected Dr. Stewart's medical opinion. The Commission stated:

The Full Commission recognizes Dr. Stewart's opinion regarding these demonstrated post-injury abnormalities . . . . The Full Commission in the present matter rejects Dr. Stewart's opinion that the claimant's objective medical findings "do not correlate with the injury that occurred on April 6, 2017." To the contrary, none of the tears in the tendon of the claimant's left shoulder were shown to be present before the stipulated April 6, 2017 accidental injury.

         The Commission further found that the injury was supported by objective findings, namely the abnormalities in the MRI. Lonoke School appealed the Commission's decision to this court.

         On appeal, Lonoke School first argues that the Commission arbitrarily rejected Dr. Stewart's medical opinion. It points out that Coffman did not introduce any medical evidence to contest Dr. Stewart's opinion and asserts that the Commission substituted its opinion in lieu of Dr. Stewart's opinion.

         The Commission has the authority to accept or reject medical opinions and its resolution of the medical evidence has the force and effect of a jury verdict. Coleman v. Pro Transp., Inc., 97 Ark.App. 338, 249 S.W.3d 149 (2007). The Commission, however, may not arbitrarily disregard medical evidence. Pyle v. Woodfield, Inc., 2009 Ark.App. 251, 306 S.W.3d 455. In order for an administrative action to be invalid as arbitrary, the action must either lack any rational basis or hinge on a finding of fact based on an erroneous view of the law. Pine Bluff for Safe Disposal v. Ark. Pollution Control & Ecology Comm'n, 354 Ark. 563, 127 S.W.3d 509 (2003); Ark. Prof'l Bail Bondsman Licensing Bd. v. Oudin, 348 Ark. 48, 69 S.W.3d 855 (2002). An arbitrary act is thus an illegal or unreasoned act; an act is not arbitrary simply because the reviewing court would have acted differently. Woodyard v. Ark. Diversified Ins. Co., 268 Ark. 94, 594 S.W.2d 13 (1980). In workers'-compensation cases, arbitrary disregard of evidence is demonstrated when the Commission affirmatively states that there is "no evidence" for a proposition when such evidence has, in fact, been presented in the proceeding. See Edens v. Superior Marble & Glass, 346 Ark. 487, 58 S.W.3d 369 (2001). Arbitrary disregard has been described as follows:

The Commission cannot disbelieve the testimony of a witness for an irrational or whimsical reason; for example, it cannot decide a case on the rationale that witnesses with names beginning in vowels are never credible, or that foreign-born doctors always offer more ...

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