in the Court of Appeals 8 February 2017.
by plaintiff from opinion and award entered 5 July 2016 by
the North Carolina Industrial Commission North Carolina
Industrial Commission, I.C. No. X43019.
Law Firm, by J. Kevin Jones, for plaintiff-appellant.
& Ratledge, PLLC, by James E. R. Ratledge and Scott J.
Lasso, for defendants-appellees.
Capen Trucer Carl Anders, II (Anders) appeals from an Opinion
and Award of the Industrial Commission denying his claims for
additional medical and indemnity benefits related to
bilateral hernias allegedly caused by an earlier, compensable
hernia injury that plaintiff suffered while employed by
defendant-employer Universal Leaf North America (Universal
Leaf). Anders' primary argument on appeal is that the
Commission erred in concluding that the subsequent bilateral
hernias that Anders suffered after Universal Leaf terminated
his employment were not causally related to his prior
compensable hernia injury. Anders also challenges the
Commission's conclusion that his claim for additional
medical treatment related to the subsequent bilateral hernias
was time-barred by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-25.1. For the
reasons that follow, although the Commission committed an
error in its causation analysis, we conclude that no remand
is necessary in this case, and that the Commission's
Opinion and Award should be affirmed.
case arises out of an admittedly compensable bilateral
inguinal hernia injury that Anders suffered while employed as
a seasonal employee by Universal Leaf. At the time of the
work-related accident, which occurred on 20 November 2010,
Anders was working on the "blending line" removing
wires from bales of tobacco. After a tobacco-bale wire became
stuck, Anders "yanked on the wire and felt a pain in his
groin." On 22 November 2010, Universal Leaf sent Anders
to Carolina Quick Care, where he was diagnosed with an
inguinal hernia and referred to a surgeon. However,
defendants refused to authorize a surgeon's visit at that
time. Anders worked under light-duty restrictions for several
November 2010, Anders sought treatment for his hernia in the
emergency department at Halifax Regional Medical Center,
where he was again diagnosed with an inguinal hernia and
referred to a surgeon. When Anders returned to work on 29
November 2010, he learned that he had been fired for
violating Universal Leaf's attendance policy. The record
reveals that a specific absentee policy applied to
Anders' position and that Universal Leaf had an
established process for handling workers' compensation
claims. According to Universal Leaf's absentee policy, a
seasonal worker could be terminated for accruing six
"occurrences"- i.e., "a day out of work, an
early leave, or a late entry into work"-in a
twelve-month period. Anders had accumulated at least six
occurrences between 17 September 2010 and 29 October 2010.
When Anders sought medical treatment on 28 November 2010, his
absence from work counted as an occurrence because Anders did
not contact Universal Leaf's first aid office and receive
authorization for the hospital visit.
after Universal Leaf terminated Anders, he found work at a
local Waffle House. On 22 March 2011, Dr. Robert Vire
performed a bilateral inguinal repair surgery on Anders. That
same day, Anders was discharged from the hospital with the
temporary restriction that he not lift more than 10 pounds.
Although Anders returned to Dr. Vire on 7 April 2011 with
"soreness" at the incision site, Dr. Vire found no
evidence of any hernia. Dr. Vire released Anders to full-duty
work and instructed him to report for further treatment as
needed. Anders then returned to his position at Waffle House.
May 2011, Anders experienced ongoing pain in his right groin
and he returned to Dr. Vire, who ordered that Anders undergo
an ultrasound and CT scan of the abdomen, pelvis, and chest.
The ultrasound was performed on 8 June 2011 and Anders
underwent CT scans on 20 June 2011 and 7 July 2011. Dr. Vire
found no evidence of a recurring hernia, but the ultrasound
revealed that Anders suffered from a "small right
hydrocele with superficial edema around the right
scrotum." It does not appear that the CT scans revealed
any further concerns.
original claim for workers' compensation benefits related
to the work-related hernia was accepted by defendants'
filing a Form 60 on 13 May 2011. That same day, defendants
also filed a Form 28 Return to Work report, which indicated
that Anders was released to work on 15 April 2011,
a Form 28B, which reported that Anders had received medical
compensation and 2.2 weeks of temporary total disability
benefits for the period from 29 March 2011 until 14 April
2011. The Form 28B established that Anders received his last
disability payment on 8 April 2011. Anders received his last
medical compensation payment on 19 January 2012; that payment
covered the ultrasound and the CT scans ordered by Dr. Vire.
on the results from the June 2011 ultrasound, Dr. Vire
referred Anders to Dr. Fred Williams, a surgeon at ECU
Physicians. Dr. Williams examined Anders on 11 August 2011
and found no recurrent hernias, but Dr. Williams did
"appreciate a small hydrocele, with tenderness in the
. . . ilioinguinal nerve." As a result, Anders was
prescribed the medication Neurontin for nerve pain. Anders
began working for Hardee's in August 2011.
Anders sought treatment for bilateral groin pain in May 2013,
he was referred to general surgeon Dr. James Ketoff, who
diagnosed a small, recurrent right inguinal hernia. Dr.
Ketoff surgically repaired this hernia on 6 June 2013, and he
ordered Anders out work until 9 July 2013. Between July 2013
and August 2014, Anders sporadically sought medical treatment
for groin pain.
January 2014, Anders initiated the present action by filing a
Form 33 request for hearing, seeking medical and indemnity
compensation for his recurring hernias. Following
defendants' Form 33R response, which asserted that Anders
had received all benefits to which he was entitled, the
matter was heard before Deputy Commissioner Theresa
Stephenson on 10 September 2014. On 9 April 2015, Deputy
Commissioner Stephenson filed an Opinion and Award that,
inter alia, concluded that Anders' subsequent
recurring hernias were not related to his November 2010
work-related injury, awarded certain indemnity compensation
to Anders, and denied other indemnity compensation and any
reported to Dr. Ketoff, who diagnosed a left-sided, recurrent
hernia on 21 August 2014. Dr. Ketoff surgically repaired
Anders' left-sided hernia on 24 September 2014. Dr.
Ketoff ordered Anders out of work from the date of the
surgery until 9 December 2014, when Anders was released to
work and instructed to ease into full activity.
appealed Deputy Commissioner Stephenson's decision to the
Full Commission. After hearing the matter in September 2015,
the Commission entered an Opinion and Award on 5 July 2016
and found, inter alia, that Anders' work-related
hernia had "fully healed" after it was repaired on
22 March 2011; that defendants' last payments of
indemnity and medical payments occurred on 8 April 2011 and
19 January 2012, respectively; that Anders did not request
additional medical compensation until 27 January 2014; that
Anders had not suffered any permanent damage to any organs or
body parts as a result of the work-related injury; and that
Anders failed to produce evidence of his earnings from the
work he performed after Universal Leaf terminated him, which
included positions at Waffle House, Hardee's, and
landscaping and construction work.
on these findings, the Commission concluded that Anders had
failed to prove that his November 2010 work-related injury
was causally related to his subsequent recurring hernias, and
that Anders' request for additional medical compensation
was time-barred by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-25.1. Because
Anders had failed to prove that he was "disabled"
as defined by the Workers' Compensation Act during the
period following his termination, the Commission further
concluded that Anders was not entitled to additional
indemnity compensation for his subsequent recurrent hernias.
Consequently, Anders' claims for additional compensation
were denied. Anders now appeals the Commission's Opinion
Standard of Review
review of an award from the Industrial Commission is
generally limited to two issues: (1) whether the findings of
fact are supported by competent evidence, and (2) whether the
conclusions of law are justified by the findings of
fact." Clark v. Wal-Mart, 360 N.C. 41, 43, 619
S.E.2d 491, 492 (2005). The " 'Commission is the
sole judge of the credibility of the witnesses and the
[evidentiary] weight to be given their testimony.' "
Adams v. AVX Corp., 349 N.C. 676, 680, 509 S.E.2d
411, 413 (1998) (quoting Anderson v. Lincoln Constr.
Co., 265 N.C. 431, 433-34, 144 S.E.2d 272, 274 (1965)).
"Thus, if the totality of the evidence, viewed in the
light most favorable to the complainant, tends directly or by
reasonable inference to support the Commission's
findings, these findings are conclusive on appeal even though
there may be plenary evidence to support findings to the
contrary." Click v. Pilot Freight Carriers,
Inc., 300 N.C. 164, 166, 265 S.E.2d 389, 390 (1980). The
Commission's conclusions of law are subject to de
novo review. Boney v. Winn Dixie, Inc., 163
N.C.App. 330, 331, 593 S.E.2d 93, 95 (2004).
appeal, Anders' primary argument is that the Commission
improperly decided the causation issue. Anders contends that
the Commission erred in determining that his subsequent
bilateral hernias were not compensable as natural and direct
results of the earlier compensable bilateral hernia he
suffered while employed by Universal Leaf. However, the
Commission's Opinion and Award also contains conclusions
of law that present separate and distinct bars-which are
unaffected by the causation issue-to Anders' claims for
additional medical and indemnity benefits. Accordingly, we
begin by addressing the Commission's conclusions that
Anders' claim for medical benefits was time-barred, and
that his claim for indemnity benefits should be denied
because he failed to prove that he was "disabled"
as defined by the Workers' Compensation Act during the
period following his termination from employment by Universal
1929, the legislature created our Workers' Compensation
Act, "[t]he underlying purpose of [which] is to provide
compensation for work[ers] who suffer disability by accident
arising out of and in the course of their employment."
Henry v. A.C. Lawrence Leather Co., 234 N.C. 126,
127, 66 S.E.2d 693, 694 (1951). As the plan is designed,
"[a]n award under the Act has two distinct components:
(1) payment of 'medical compensation'
pursuant to G.S. § 97-25 for expenses incurred as a
direct result of the work-related injury, and (2) payment of
general 'compensation' pursuant to
G.S. §§ 97-29 through 97-31 for financial loss
suffered as a direct result of the work-related injury."
Collins v. Speedway Motor Sports Corp., 165 N.C.App.
113, 118, 598 S.E.2d 185, 189 (2004) (emphasis added and
citations omitted); see Cash v. Lincare Holdings,
181 N.C.App. 259, 264, 639 S.E.2d 9, 14 (2007) (recognizing
that "the legislature always has provided for, and
continues to provide for, [these] two distinct components of
an award under the Workers' Compensation Act")
(citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
term medical compensation is defined as
medical, surgical, hospital, nursing, and rehabilitative
services, including, but not limited to, attendant care
services prescribed by a health care provider authorized by
the employer or subsequently by the Commission, vocational
rehabilitation, and medicines, sick travel, and other
treatment, including medical and surgical supplies, as may
reasonably be required to effect a cure or give relief and
for such additional time as, in the judgment of the
Commission, will tend to lessen the period of disability; and
any original artificial members as may reasonably be
necessary at ...