An injured truck driver described as “pretty tough” by her doctor after she finally sought treatment more than a year after a back injury was eligible for total temporary disability benefits despite the late notice, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The high court reversed a decision by a divided Court of Appeals panel that found Donna Splawn Sprouse waited too long to report her claim, that her back pain was caused by pre-existing sciatica, and that she wasn’t disabled for the length of time that she claimed. In a unanimous opinion, the high court said the appellate panel improperly reweighed evidence to arrive at different conclusions than the Industrial Commission.
“A claimant’s pre-existing medical condition cannot properly be deemed to constitute a complete bar to a successful workers’ compensation claim when a plaintiff provides evidence to support the Commission’s conclusion that a work-related accident has caused a new injury that aggravated or accelerated the individual’s pre-existing condition,” the opinion says.
The high court also reversed the Court of Appeals’ finding that Sprouse did not give timely notice and its decision on the period of time she was disabled.
“The Court of Appeals, they totally ignored the doctor’s testimony and inserted their own opinion for the doctor’s, which you are not allowed to do under our rules,” Sprouse’s attorney, Scott W. Roberts in Gastonia, said.” The Court of Appeals wasn’t supposed to touch it. They not only touched it, they tore it part.”
Donna Sprouse and her husband John Sprouse were both employed as long-haul tractor-trailer drivers for the Mary B. Turner Trucking Co. On Sept. 24, 2016, Donna was driving westbound on Interstate 40 in Tennessee when the right front tire of their rig exploded, causing the truck to crash into an embankment.
John Sprouse, who was in the cab’s sleeper at the time of the crash, sustained foot and shoulder injuries. Donna was “stiff and sore” but did not suspect that she suffered any serious injury. She informed her employer on the day of the accident but did not seek medical help immediately, saying later that she was focused on getting her husband back to their home in North Carolina.
Two days after the accident, Donna Sprouse sought treatment with her primary care provider for soreness and muscle spasms. A nurse practitioner prescribed anti-inflammatory medications and a muscle relaxer.
Sprouse continued to experience pain after the crash but thought it was connected to previously diagnosed sciatica. She and her husband both returned to work in January 2017.
By September 2017, Sprouse sought treatment again when her fingers became numb. A nurse practitioner diagnosed acute left lumbar radiculopathy and ordered a magnetic resonance imaging test.
After an MRI was taken in December 2017, the nurse practitioner determined Sprouse had moderate to severe stenosis. She was referred to Dr. Matthew J. McGirt, a spinal neurosurgeon. In the meantime, Sprouse’s symptoms grew worse. She started dragging her foot and suffered weakness in her arms, which caused her to drop things.
McGirt determined that Sprouse had two herniated discs in her cervical spine, the result of compression during the September 2016 truck crash. He reported that she was temporarily totally disabled from Sept. 28, 2017 — the date she visited her nurse practitioner for numbness in her fingers.
McGirt testified at the Industrial Commission that Sprouse was “pretty tough because . . . she had some pretty darn significant weakness that she was not coming in and screaming nor did we have a long drawn out workers [sic] comp conversation nor a causation conversation.”
McGirt filed a notice with her employer that she was injured because of the September 2016 accident on Feb. 8, 2018. McGirt performed fusion surgery to correct the herniated discs on Feb 12. Sprouse returned to work on April 21, 2018.
The Industrial Commission found that McGirt’s testimony was credible and awarded Sprouse temporary disability benefits from Sept. 28, 2017 until the date she returned to work after surgery. Although North Carolina law requires claimants to provide written notice of workplace injuries within 30 days, the Industrial Commission decided that she had a reasonable excuse because she had notified her employer about the accident on the date it happened and had not sought care for a work injury until much later only because she was not aware that her injury was caused by the accident.
Accident Fund appealed the commission’s opinion and award. Two of the three judges on the Court of Appeals panel that heard the case decided that Sprouse had not given timely notice, that her injury was caused by a pre-existing condition and that she was not disabled until the date of her surgery, Feb. 8, 2018.
The Supreme Court agreed with dissenting judge on the appellate panel, who wrote that the majority had essentially reweighed the evidence to come to a different conclusion than the Industrial Commission. The appellate court’s duty “goes no further than to determine whether the record contains any evidence tending to support the finding,” the opinion says.
“At each stage of its analysis in the present case, the Court of Appeals majority significantly departed from these well-established principles of appellate review by making its own credibility determinations, viewing the evidence in a light which was not most favorable to plaintiff, and usurping the Commission’s role as factfinder in this workers’ compensation matter,” the high court said.
The Supreme Court reversed the decision and restored the Industrial Commission’s opinion and award.
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