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Electrical General Corp. v. Labonte

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

July 27, 2016

ELECTRICAL GENERAL CORP., ET AL.
v.
MICHAEL L. LABONTE

          Berger, Wright, Reed, JJ.

          OPINION

          Reed, J.

         This appeal stems from a jury verdict in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County that reversed the finding of the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission ("Commission") that Michael Labonte's current back condition is not causally related to the accidental work injury he suffered on September 2, 2004, but rather entirely to a subsequent intervening accident he suffered on December 31, 2006. In so reversing the Commission, the jury authorized Mr. Labonte's requests for medical treatment and payment of his medical bill dated February 2, 2012. Mr. Labonte's employer, Electrical General Corporation, and insurer, Selective Insurance Company of America, (together "appellants") present four questions for our review, which, for clarity, we have rephrased as follows:[1]

1. Did the Workers' Compensation Commission's previous finding that Mr. Labonte had sustained a subsequent intervening accident bar him from receiving the additional benefits awarded to him by the jury?
2. Should the doctrine of collateral estoppel have barred the jury from considering whether Mr. Labonte's current back condition was caused by a subsequent intervening accident?
3. Did the circuit court err in submitting to the jury the question of whether Mr. Labonte's back condition was causally related to the work injury?
4. Did the circuit court err by allowing the jury to decide issues relating to both apportionment and the reasonableness and necessity of Mr. Labonte's requests for medical treatment and payment of medical expenses?

         Finding no error, we affirm.

         Factual And Procedural Background

         On September 2, 2004, Michael Labonte ("appellee"), an electrician, sustained an accidental work injury to his back while attempting to steady a falling forty-foot ladder. He subsequently filed a claim with the Workers' Compensation Commission on September 27, 2004. The Commission conducted a hearing on June 15, 2005, and, by Order dated June 22, 2005, found that the appellee's persisting back condition was the result of the aforementioned accidental work injury. Following that Order, the appellants began paying for the appellee's medical treatment and providing him with out-of-work benefits. The Commission conducted three more hearings throughout the next year and a half, each resulting in the authorization of the appellee's requests for additional medical treatment and/or out-of-work benefits.

         On December 31, 2006, while operating his vehicle on the roadway, the appellee was pulled over by a police officer. An altercation ensued, during which time the appellee was slammed against the hood of the police car by an officer. This altercation caused the appellee to experience increased pain in his back. Therefore, the appellee's treating physician, Dr. Najmaldin O. Karim, placed him out of work for approximately one month. Dr. Karim indicated that the altercation with the police officer aggravated the appellee's pre-existing herniated disc but did not create a new or separate injury.

         In early 2007, the appellee filed Issues with the Commission requesting additional temporary total disability from January 4, 2007, to March 9, 2007. The Commission conducted a hearing on this request on March 9, 2007. Thereafter, by Order dated March 30, 2007, the Commission found that "the [appellee]'s need for lumbar epidural injections is not causally related to [his work-related] accident" in 2004. Furthermore, the Commission found that the appellee's disability between January 4, 2007, and March 9, 2007, was caused by "a subsequent event on December 31, 2006" (i.e., the altercation with the police officer). Accordingly, the Commission denied appellee's early 2007 request for treatment.

         Later in 2007, the appellee filed another set of Issues with the Commission. This time, in addition to the payment of medical expenses, he requested compensation for permanent partial rather than temporary total disability. The Commission conducted a hearing on October 4, 2007. On October 15, 2007, the Commission issued an Order in which it found, with regard to the appellee's claim for permanent partial disability, that he "[h]as overall 30% industrial disability to the body due to an injury to the back; 20% is due to this accidental injury, and 10% is causally connected to pre-existing and subsequent condition[.]" As such, the Commission ordered that the appellee be paid "at the rate of $247.00, payable weekly, beginning December 20, 2006, for a period of 100 weeks." However, the Commission again denied, on the basis of a subsequent intervening injury, the appellee's request for payment of the medical bills he incurred between January 15, 2007, and March 5, 2007.

         On October 10, 2012, the appellee filed a petition to reopen his workers' compensation claim for worsening of his permanent partial disability. He again requested authorization of medical treatment and payment of medical expenses. However, this time his request for payment of medical expenses was in relation to those he incurred on February 16, 2012, rather than in early 2007. A hearing took place before the Commission on January 16, 2013, which was followed up by an Order dated January 24, 2013. In this latest Order, the Commission found that the "Orders dated [March 30, 2007, ] and [October 15, 2007, ] establish a subsequent intervening event which breaks the causal nexus between the accidental injury and the current condition." The Commission further found that "there is no[] worsening of [the appellee's permanent partial disability] which is causally related to the accidental injury of [September 2, 2004]." Accordingly, the Commission denied the appellee's requests for medical treatment and payment of medical expenses.

         On February 4, 2013, the appellee filed a Petition for Judicial Review of the Commission's January 24, 2013, Order. In response, on November 13, 2013, the appellants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. A hearing was held on the appellants' Motion for Summary Judgment in the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County on March 10, 2014. By Order dated March 13, 2014, the Motion for Summary Judgment was denied.

         The case proceeded to jury trial on February 12, 2015. Conflicting expert testimony was presented during the trial, which lasted two days. Dr. Michael Franchetti testified on behalf of the appellee that the appellee suffered from an overall impairment level of fifty-three (53) percent. Dr. Franchetti further testified that the entirety of the appellee's impairment level was caused by the accidental work injury he sustained on September 2, 2004. The appellants' expert, Dr. Edward Cohen, disagreed. Dr. Cohen testified that the appellee's back condition had not worsened since 2007 as a result of the original work injury in 2004.

         On February 13, 2015, the jury returned its verdict that: 1) the appellee's current back condition is causally related to the September 2, 2004 work injury; 2) the appellee's back condition has worsened one hundred (100) percent as a result of the accidental work injury since the Commission's October 15, 2007, Order; 3) the appellee's request for medical treatment was reasonable, necessary, and causally related to his work injury; and 4) the appellee's request for payment of medical expenses incurred on February 16, 2012, was also reasonable, necessary, and causally related to the work injury. The jury's verdict was entered on March 4, 2015. On March 6, 2015, the appellants filed a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict, which was ultimately denied. Therefore, on June 15, 2015, the appellants noted this timely appeal.

         Discussion

         I. Legal Effect of the Subsequent Intervening Accident

         A. The Contentions of the Parties

         The appellants argue that "[w]here a workers' compensation Claimant's disability is due in part to [a subsequent intervening] injur[y], . . . the Employer is not responsible for ongoing benefits or treatment." The appellants rely primarily on two cases in support of this proposition: Martin v. Allegany Cnty. Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs, 73 Md.App. 695 (1988), and Reeves Motor Co. v. Reeves, 204 Md. 576 (1954). The appellants assert that the appellee's altercation with the police officer on December 31, 2006, broke the causal connection between the appellee's current back condition and the accidental work injury he sustained on September 2, 2004. The appellants also point to the Commission's March 30, 2007, and October 4, 2007, Orders in which the Commission specifically denied the appellee's requests on the grounds that he had sustained a subsequent intervening injury. Therefore, the appellants contend that "the Circuit Court erred in denying both the Employer and Insurer's Motion for Summary Judgment and . . . Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict or New Trial."

         The appellee, on the other hand, argues that "[i]t is well settled in Maryland that a preexisting medical condition may deteriorate independent of and despite the existence of a subsequent injury." (citing Subsequent Injury Fund v. Thomas, 275 Md. 628 (1975)) (emphasis added). The appellee asserts that Martin can be distinguished from the present case because the former only "discussed subsequent events in the context of temporary disability, " whereas the latter involves permanent disability. The appellee contends that Reeves is likewise distinguishable because in that case the workers' compensation claimant did not present any evidence that his surgery was caused, even in part, by the work injury. The appellee argues that in the case sub judice, unlike Reeves, there is plenty of evidence linking his claim to his accidental work injury, including the testimony of Dr. Franchetti. Lastly, the appellee asserts that a subsequent injury does not necessarily preclude an employer from further liability, as evidenced by the fact that permanent partial disability, unlike temporary disability, can be apportioned to different causes. See Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-656; Martin, 73 Md.App. at 699-700; and Maryland Civil Pattern Jury Instruction ("MCPJI") 30:30.

         B. Standard of Review

         The appellants are essentially arguing that under Maryland case law, a subsequent intervening accident such as the one the appellee suffered when he was slammed against the hood of the police car serves to bar the employer from further liability on a previously-sustained work accident. As the Court of Appeals has explained, "where an order involves an interpretation and application of Maryland constitutional, statutory or case law, our Court must determine whether the trial court's conclusions are 'legally correct' under a de novo standard of review." Schisler v. State, 394 Md. 519, 535 (2006) (citing Garfink v. Cloisters at Charles, Inc., 392 Md. 374, 383 (2006); Gray v. State, 388 Md. 366, 374-75 (2005); Nesbit v. GEICO, 382 Md. 65, 72 (2004); and Walter v. Gunter, 367 Md. 386, 392 (2002)). Thus, we shall review this issue de novo.

         C. Analysis

         We agree with the appellee that his subsequent intervening accident did not, per se, preclude further liability on the part of his employer for the permanent partial injury he sustained on the job. We explain.

         The appellants and appellee agree that the jury was properly instructed with MCPJI 30:12, which provides:

Worker's Compensation-Causal Relationship. In order to be compensable there must be proof that the injury could have been caused by the accident and nothing else after ...

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