Oklahoma Claimant Awarded Additional Benefits After Freak Accident at Medical Facility

If It Weren’t For Bad Luck, She’d Have No Luck at All

An Oklahoma workers’ compensation claimant is entitled to additional benefits following a bizarre incident in which she sustained further injuries to her knee in 2012 at a medical facility to which she had gone for treatment of a 2008 work-related injury [City of Tulsa v. Hodge, 2018 OK 65, 2018 Okla. LEXIS 68 (Sept. 11, 2018)]. The claimant, who had just received a steroid epidural injection to the cervical spine, was still under partial sedation when medical personnel placed her in a wheelchair to move her to the facility’s recovery area. The wheelchair had no foot rests. As they pushed her along, her feet drug on the tile floor and her knees went underneath the wheelchair, causing it to suddenly stop. The claimant was thrown forward, resulting in severe twisting to her knees and additional trauma to her spine.

Aggravation or New Injury?

The claimant sought additional medical treatment for injuries, arguing that there had been a change in her medical condition that related back to the 2008 injury. The employer countered that the 2012 incident was an intervening cause, resulting in a new injury, for which the employer was not legally responsible. The three-judge panel of the Workers’ Compensation Court of Existing Claims (“the WC Court”) conducted a hearing and issued an order affirming the trial court’s decision that claimant had sustained a change in condition and that the employer was, therefore, responsible for the additional medical treatment required to treat the 2012 injury.

Court of Civil Appeals: This Was a New Injury

The Court of Civil Appeals (“COCA”) disagreed with the WC Court, finding that the claimant had suffered a new injury, possibly a tort, not a compensable change of condition. The COCA said the employer could not be held responsible for a wheelchair accident that occurred at a medical facility due to someone’s inattention or carelessness. The COCA added that the fact that the claimant was at the medical facility to receive treatment for the adjudicated spinal injury did not alter the fact that the wheelchair accident was not a legitimate consequence of the work-related injury 3 1/2 years earlier.

Supreme Court Reinstates the WC Court’s Decision

The Supreme Court disagreed with the COCA and reinstated the WC Court’s decision. The high court observed that there was undisputed evidence that the claimant suffered some type of twisting to her left knee as a result of the wheelchair accident while receiving treatment for her prior work-related injury. A physician’s note observed that following the wheelchair incident, the claimant had swelling and more limited range of motion. The doctor’s examination also revealed that the claimant had objective findings of swelling and weakness to the left knee. The doctor unequivocally opined that the claimant sustained a change in physical condition for the worse to the left leg (knee) and that such change occurred as a consequence of her fall following the epidural steroid injection.

The decision of the trial court and three-judge panel must be upheld if the record contained facts to support the conclusions reflected in the decision. The Supreme Court held that the record contained abundant evidence to support the decision of the three-judge panel on review of the trial court’s order.

COCA Decision Out of Accord With Stare Decisis:

The Court continued that the conclusion by COCA the claimant’s injuries were the result of an intervening accident and not compensable was not in accord with the Court’s longstanding decisions in this area. The Court stressed that it was well settled that an employer was liable for all legitimate consequences following an accident including unskillfulness or error of judgment of a physician treating an injury and that the employee was entitled to recover for the full extent of the disability resulting from the work-related injury even where “the same has been aggravated and increased by the intervening negligence or carelessness of the employer’s selected physician” (quoting Barnsdall Refining Co. v. Ramsdall, 1931 OK 258, ¶ 5, 149 Okla. 99, 299 P. 499, 501). The Court added that more recently, in Phillips v. Duke Manufacturing, Inc., 1999 OK 25, 980 P.2d 137, the Court had held that an employee suffered a consequential injury arising out of and in the course of employment when his neck was injured during treatment for his previously adjudicated work-related injuries to the back and right knee.

The Court accordingly vacated the decision of the COCA and affirmed the decision of the three-judge panel of the WC Court.

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