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Electrical General Corp. v. Labonte

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 10, 2017

ELECTRICAL GENERAL CORP. et al.
v.
MICHAEL L. LABONTE

          Argued: June 1, 2017

         Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County Case No. 02-C-13-180640

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          Watts, J.

         The purpose of the Maryland Workers' Compensation Act, Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. (1991, 2016 Repl. Vol.) ("LE") §§ 9-101 to 9-1201, "is to protect workers and their families from hardships inflicted by work-related injuries by providing workers with compensation for loss of earning capacity resulting from accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment." Hollingsworth v. Severstal Sparrows Point, LLC, 448 Md. 648, 655, 141 A.3d 90, 94 (2016) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). For purposes of the Workers' Compensation Act, "an accidental injury that arises out of and in the course of employment" is known as an "accidental personal injury[.]" LE § 9-101(b)(1). The Workers' Compensation Act divides disabilities that are caused by accidental personal injuries into four categories:

temporary partial disability (disability which is temporary in duration and partial in extent) . . .; temporary total disability (disability which is temporary in duration but total in extent) . . .; permanent partial disability (disability which is permanent in duration and partial in extent) . . .; and permanent total disability (disability which is permanent in duration and total in extent)[.]

Wal Mart Stores, Inc. v. Holmes, 416 Md. 346, 353 n.2, 7 A.3d 13, 17 n.2 (2010).

         In this matter of first impression-where an employee suffered an accidental personal injury and incurred a subsequent injury outside the course of employment, the Workers' Compensation Commission ("the Commission") awarded permanent partial disability benefits, and, later, the employee alleged a worsening of the employee's medical condition-we must decide whether the existence of a subsequent intervening event finding by the Commission precluded the Commission from awarding additional permanent partial disability benefits and other workers' compensations benefits for worsening of the employee's condition.

         Michael L. LaBonte ("LaBonte"), Respondent, was an electrician who worked for Electrical General Corporation, Petitioner, which had workers' compensation insurance through Selective Insurance Company of America, Petitioner (together, "Electrical General"). LaBonte suffered an accidental personal injury to his back at work when he caught and pushed a large ladder that had been falling down. LaBonte filed a claim for workers' compensation and multiple Issues[1] with the Commission, seeking temporary total disability benefits and temporary partial disability benefits, both of which the Commission awarded.

         Later, LaBonte was injured outside of the workplace in an unrelated matter. Specifically, a law enforcement officer initiated a traffic stop of a vehicle that LaBonte had been driving outside the course of his employment. According to LaBonte, during the traffic stop, the law enforcement officer grabbed him and pushed him down onto the vehicle, causing his existing back pain to be aggravated.

         LaBonte filed Issues with the Commission again, seeking additional temporary total disability benefits. The Commission issued an Order denying LaBonte's request, observing that he had been "involved in a subsequent event on" the date of the incident with the law enforcement officer. LaBonte filed Issues with the Commission again, this time seeking permanent partial disability benefits. In an Award of Compensation, the Commission awarded LaBonte permanent partial disability benefits, finding that his disability was partly due to his accidental personal injury-i.e., his work-related injury- and partly due to "pre-existing and subsequent conditions[.]"

         Years later, LaBonte filed a Petition to Reopen[2] with the Commission, alleging that his back condition had worsened, and requesting additional permanent partial disability benefits. The Commission granted the Petition to Reopen, but found that there had not been a worsening of LaBonte's back condition that was causally related to his accidental personal injury because the Commission's previous Order and Award of Compensation established a "subsequent intervening event" that broke the "causal nexus" between LaBonte's accidental personal injury and his existing back condition.

         LaBonte filed a Petition for Judicial Review. In the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County, a jury found that LaBonte's accidental personal injury was the cause of the recent worsening of LaBonte's back condition. Electrical General noted an appeal, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed, holding that the incident with the law enforcement officer did not preclude Electrical General's liability for the worsening of LaBonte's back condition.

         Before us, Electrical General argues that, where an employee suffers both an accidental personal injury that causes a permanent partial disability and a subsequent intervening event-e.g., an injury sustained outside the course of employment-a finding that the employee has incurred a subsequent intervening event precludes the accidental personal injury from being the proximate cause of worsening of the disability. In other words, Electrical General asserts that a finding that an employee sustained a subsequent intervening injury forecloses an employer's further liability for permanent partial disability benefits and other workers' compensation benefits due to an alleged worsening of the employee's condition.

         As explained below, in our view, Electrical General conflates the law that applies to a temporary disability with the law that applies to a permanent disability. Liability for a temporary disability depends on the injury that occurred last. See Martin v. Allegany Cty. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 73 Md.App. 695, 700, 536 A.2d 132, 134 (1988). By contrast, liability for a permanent disability is to be apportioned among all of the injuries that caused the permanent disability, not just the injury that occurred last. See LE § 9-656. Applying these principles, we hold that, where the Commission has awarded permanent partial disability benefits based on an accidental personal injury or occupational disease and has also determined that the employee incurred a subsequent intervening event-e.g., an injury sustained outside the course of employment-upon a request to reopen alleging worsening of the employee's medical condition, the employee is entitled to compensation for permanent partial disability for any portion of such disability that is caused by and reasonably attributable solely to the employee's accidental personal injury or occupational disease. Stated otherwise, where an employee has incurred both accidental personal injury or occupational disease, and a subsequent intervening injury, and the Workers' Compensation Commission has apportioned permanent partial disability benefits for an accidental personal injury or occupational disease, the existence of a subsequent intervening event finding does not preclude the Commission from awarding additional permanent partial disability benefits for worsening of the employee's condition caused by and reasonably attributable solely to the accidental personal injury or occupational disease.

         Further, the existence of a subsequent intervening event does not, per se, preclude an employer's liability for workers' compensation benefits. An employer may be liable for workers' compensation benefits where an employee demonstrates that a worsening of the employee's medical condition was caused by an accidental personal injury or occupational disease. And, the issues of whether an accidental personal injury or occupational disease, or a subsequent intervening event, caused a worsening of an employee's medical condition, and whether, for purposes of permanent partial disability benefits, a worsening of an employee's medical condition was reasonably attributable solely to an accidental personal injury or occupational disease, are factual matters for the Commission to determine in each individual case.

         BACKGROUND

         Accidental Personal Injury, Claim, and Initial Issues

         On September 2, 2004, while on the job, LaBonte and a helper maneuvered a 40-foot ladder that weighed more than 300 pounds. The ladder started to fall, and LaBonte caught it and pushed it back up. LaBonte felt something shift in his back. Later, LaBonte began experiencing constant back pain, and it was determined that LaBonte had suffered a herniated disc.

         LaBonte was either not working, or working in "a light duty position, " throughout nearly all of the period from September 13, 2004 to December 19, 2006. During that period, on May 24, 2006, LaBonte underwent back surgery.

         On September 27, 2004, LaBonte filed a claim for workers' compensation with the Commission, requesting temporary total disability benefits, medical treatment, and medical expenses. On June 15, 2005, the Commission conducted a hearing. In an Award of Compensation dated June 22, 2005, the Commission found that, on September 2, 2014, LaBonte had suffered an accidental personal injury that caused a disability. The Commission did not specify the type of disability that LaBonte's accidental personal injury had caused. The Commission reserved on the issue of temporary total disability benefits because no medical documentation had been submitted. The Commission granted LaBonte's requests for medical treatment and medical expenses.

         LaBonte filed Issues with the Commission, requesting additional medical treatment in the form of a neurological consult; temporary partial disability benefits from March 18, 2005 to October 21, 2005; and temporary total disability benefits from September 13, 2004 to October 24, 2004, from November 23, 2004 to December 30, 2004, from February 24, 2005 to March 17, 2005, and from October 21, 2005 onward. On October 21, 2005, the Commission conducted a hearing. In an Order dated November 10, 2005, the Commission granted LaBonte's request for additional medical treatment, and awarded LaBonte all of the temporary partial disability benefits that he had requested. The Commission reserved on LaBonte's request for temporary total disability benefits from October 21, 2005 onward; denied LaBonte's request for temporary total disability benefits from March 8, 2005 to March 17, 2005; and awarded LaBonte all of the other temporary total disability benefits that he had requested.

         LaBonte filed Issues with the Commission a second time, requesting additional medical treatment that his physician had recommended, and temporary total disability benefits from January 5, 2006 onward. On March 10, 2006, the Commission conducted a hearing. In an Order dated March 15, 2006, the Commission granted LaBonte's request for additional medical treatment, and awarded LaBonte temporary total disability benefits starting on January 5, 2006, and continuing as long as he remained temporarily totally disabled as a result of his accidental personal injury.

         LaBonte filed Issues with the Commission a third time, requesting temporary total disability benefits from March 18, 2005 to October 21, 2005, and temporary partial disability benefits from March 18, 2005 onward. On June 29, 2006, the Commission conducted a hearing. In an Order dated July 20, 2006, the Commission awarded LaBonte all of the temporary total disability benefits that he had requested, and denied LaBonte's request for temporary partial disability benefits.

         Incident with the Law Enforcement Officer and Subsequent Issues

         On December 31, 2006, a law enforcement officer initiated a traffic stop of a vehicle that LaBonte had been driving outside the course of employment. LaBonte was unable to perform sobriety tests to the officer's satisfaction, and the officer arrested and handcuffed LaBonte. According to LaBonte, the handcuffs came loose, and the officer grabbed LaBonte and pushed him down onto the vehicle. According to LaBonte, after the incident with the law enforcement officer, his back pain was aggravated.

         On January 15, 2007, a doctor recommended that LaBonte be placed on off-work status, and scheduled another appointment for February 5, 2007. Sometime after the February 5, 2007 appointment, LaBonte returned to work. LaBonte was prescribed medication and exercise, but no additional surgery was performed on his back.

         LaBonte filed Issues with the Commission a fourth time, requesting temporary total disability benefits from January 4, 2007 to March 9, 2007 and additional medical treatment in the form of lumbar epidural injections. On March 9, 2007, the Commission conducted a hearing. In an Order dated March 30, 2007, the Commission found that LaBonte's need for lumbar epidural injections was not causally related to his accidental personal injury. The Commission further stated that LaBonte had been "involved in a subsequent event on December 31, 2006"-i.e., the date of the incident with the law enforcement officer-and denied LaBonte's requests for temporary total disability benefits and additional medical treatment.

         LaBonte filed Issues with the Commission a fifth time, requesting temporary total disability benefits from February 11, 2006 to March 20, 2006; temporary partial disability benefits from October 6, 2006 to December 19, 2006; permanent partial disability benefits from December 20, 2006 onward; and expenses for medical treatment that he had received between January 15, 2007 and March 5, 2007. On October 4, 2007, the Commission conducted a hearing. In an Award of Compensation dated October 15, 2007, the Commission found that LaBonte had "overall 30% industrial [permanent partial] disability to the body due to an injury to the back; 20% is due to [his] accidental [personal] injury, and 10% is causally connected to pre-existing and subsequent conditions[.]" The Commission awarded LaBonte all of the temporary total disability benefits and temporary partial disability benefits that he had requested. The Commission awarded LaBonte permanent partial disability benefits in the form of $247 weekly, starting on December 20, 2006, and continuing for 100 weeks, and denied LaBonte's request for medical expenses that had been incurred between January 15, 2007 and March 5, 2007.

         Petition to Reopen

         Approximately five years later, on October 10, 2012, LaBonte filed a Petition to Reopen with the Commission, alleging that his back condition had worsened, and requesting additional medical treatment, payment of medical expenses that he had incurred on February 16, 2012, and additional permanent partial disability benefits. The Commission granted the Petition to Reopen. On January 16, 2013, the Commission conducted a hearing. In an Order dated January 24, 2013, the Commission found that there had not been a worsening of LaBonte's back condition that was causally related to his accidental personal injury because the Commission's Order dated March 30, 2007 and its Award of Compensation dated October 15, 2007 "establish[ed] a subsequent intervening event [that] breaks the causal nexus between the accidental [personal] injury and the [existing back] condition." The Commission denied LaBonte's requests for additional medical treatment, medical expenses, and additional permanent partial disability benefits.

         Proceedings in ...


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