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Cooke v. Glatfelter/Ecusta

July 21, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lewis, Judge.

Appeal by defendant from opinion and award entered 21 November 1996 by the North Carolina Industrial Commission. Heard in the Court of Appeals 19 November 1997.

Defendant appeals from an adverse opinion and award of the North Carolina Industrial Commission. We reverse that portion of the award which requires defendant to pay attorney fees under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-88.1 (1991). In all other respects, we affirm.

The Commission's findings of fact are as follows. On 8 July 1994, plaintiff sustained a severe electric shock to her right forearm while operating a machine in the course of her employment with defendant. She was evaluated at a local hospital and was then transferred to Asheville for an evaluation by Dr. Lechner, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand surgery. Dr. Lechner diagnosed plaintiff with compartment syndrome with a median neuropraxia caused by abnormal pressure in the forearm. To prevent nerve damage, he performed surgery on her arm that night. She was released from the hospital the next day.

Plaintiff immediately returned to work but did not resume her regular duties. At first, plaintiff spent her workdays lying on a bed at defendant's factory. She cried frequently and was in significant pain. On 13 July 1994, Dr. Lechner released plaintiff to do one-handed work and on 27 July 1994, Dr. Lechner allowed plaintiff to perform certain restricted duties with her right hand. Plaintiff was assigned light duties including filing, sweeping, and picking up litter. She continued to get upset easily and by 17 August 1994, when Dr. Lechner next saw her, she was so depressed she was having suicidal thoughts.

Dr. Lechner referred plaintiff to a psychologist, Dr. Sims, who saw her that day. Dr. Sims diagnosed plaintiff's condition as an adjustment disorder with depressed mood and immediately began providing therapy. He also sent her to her family doctor so that she might obtain antidepressant medication. Both he and Dr. Lechner excused plaintiff from work until her psychological problems were addressed. Although plaintiff never resumed her full work duties after she was injured, she reported to work and continued to receive her regular wages through 18 August 1994.

During the next month, the mobility of plaintiff's right hand significantly deteriorated and her fourth and fifth fingers began to draw up into a claw-like position. Plaintiff submitted a claim for workers' compensation but defendant denied liability. The Commission found that plaintiff's depression was aggravated by defendant's denial of liability and by plaintiff's having to perform light-duty tasks which she felt to be demeaning.

Plaintiff received occupational therapy from late July until the first of November, when therapy was discontinued. On 2 November 1994, Dr. Lechner evaluated plaintiff and ordered studies to rule out the possibility of nerve damage. The tests indicated that plaintiff was not suffering from nerve damage. In Dr. Lechner's opinion, the somewhat clawed position in which plaintiff was holding her hand could not be explained physiologically. Dr. Lechner came to believe that plaintiff was suffering from a psychogenic dyskinesia. When Dr. Lechner re-evaluated plaintiff in February 1995, he noted that her hand condition had not improved and he rated plaintiff with a twenty-five percent functional impairment of her right hand. He also released her to return to work with the restrictions that she not use her right hand to perform repetitive work or to lift more than one pound. Defendant had no available work within these restrictions.

Dr. Sims continued to provide psychological treatment for plaintiff from approximately 30 August 1994 to 15 June 1995. Dr. Sims was of the opinion that plaintiff's injury and subsequent psychological difficulties were a direct result of her 8 July 1994 accident, and that the manner in which defendant treated her thereafter exacerbated plaintiff's condition.

In December 1994, at defendant's request, plaintiff was referred to Dr. Duffy for a psychological evaluation. Dr. Duffy diagnosed plaintiff with posttraumatic stress disorder and adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed moods. There were indications plaintiff was suffering from cognitive problems, so Dr. Duffy referred plaintiff to Dr. Manning, a neuropsychologist. Plaintiff underwent extensive testing by Dr. Manning in the summer of 1995. The tests revealed mild cognitive impairment consistent with a closed head injury or an electrical shock. Both Dr. Manning and Dr. Duffy recommended that plaintiff undergo a comprehensive rehabilitation program, but there is no evidence that defendant ever provided such a program.

On 7 November 1994, plaintiff requested that her claim be assigned for hearing by filing a Form 33 with the Industrial Commission. The Form 33 indicated that plaintiff believed she was entitled to permanent partial disability payments. The parties stipulated that plaintiff sustained an injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment on 8 July 1994, and that plaintiff's last day of work for defendant was 18 August 1994.

Plaintiff prevailed at the hearing before the deputy commissioner and defendant appealed to the Full Commission. The Commission awarded plaintiff temporary total disability benefits from 19 August 1994 until such time as she is no longer totally disabled. Defendant was ordered to pay medical expenses incurred as a result of the 8 July 1994 injury, an expert witness fee, and costs. Defendant was also ordered to pay an attorney fee of $2,000.00 pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-88 (1991), and an attorney fee of $9,000.00 pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-88.1 (1991). Defendant appeals.

Defendant has abandoned assignments of error 3, 9, 11, and 15 by failing to set them out in its brief. N.C.R. App. P. 28(b)(5).

Defendant argues that the finding that plaintiff is disabled is not supported by the evidence. We disagree. Plaintiff was examined by four physicians, all of whom testified that she suffered from ongoing psychological disorders caused by her injury, and that these disorders in turn decreased her ability to use her right hand. There was also evidence that plaintiff suffered mild cognitive impairment. The physicians believed that plaintiff was rendered incapable of earning the same wages she was receiving at the time of her injury. This testimony was sufficient to support a finding of disability.

Defendant argues that even if plaintiff was suffering from disabling psychological disorders, the evidence was insufficient to show that her disability was caused by her workplace injury. Defendant correctly observes that causation may be proven only by evidence that "'indicate[s] a reasonable scientific probability that the stated cause produced the stated result.'" Phillips v. U.S. Air, Inc., 120 N.C. App. 538, 542, 463 S.E.2d 259, 262 (1995) (quoting Hinson v. National Starch & Chemical Corp., 99 N.C. App. 198, 202, 392 S.E.2d 657, 659 (1990)), aff'd per curiam, 343 N.C. 302, 469 S.E.2d 552 (1996). Defendant argues that the evidence in this case was insufficient to prove causation. We disagree. Drs. Sims, Duffy, and Manning were all of the opinion ...

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