Verdict for Employer Reversed due to Inconsistencies in Medical Records
The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals recently released its opinion in the case of Johnson v. Lowe’s Home Centers, Inc. wherein it reversed the trial court’s verdict if favor of the employer.
The employee, Johnson, alleged that he injured his back while working at Lowe’s in May 2008. Johnson went to the emergency room the morning of Friday, May 16, 2008, and the medical records indicate that Johnson stated he "lifted something on Monday which started the problem" and had an "increase in pain after lifting on Thursday." Another page of the emergency room record stated "lifting heavy object at work, pain x 3 days." The emergency room report also reported the accident was a "home accident" and that the nature of the accident was "lifting crate/back injury" on May 14, 2008 at 5:30 pm. Johnson’s time clock records proved that he did not work on the Monday prior to the emergency room visit, but that he was at work at 5:30 pm on Wednesday, May 14. Johnson filled out a First Report of Injury form on Monday May 19, 2008, where he stated that he hurt his back while stocking toilets on Wednesday May 14, 2008. A subsequent medical record from Dr. Tai Chung indicated that Johnson told him that he hurt his back while lifting a heavy bucket of tools - a statement Johnson claimed was a misprint.
Johnson testified at trial, as did the corporate representative of Lowe’s, Johnson’s supervisor, and one of Johnson’s co-workers. After hearing the evidence, the trial court found that Johnson’s testimony and statements to his doctors about how the injury occurred were not credible and, therefore, found that the alleged injury was not compensable. However, on appeal, the Court of Appeals found that some of the evidence presented by the employer lacked credibility. In its decision, the appellate court pointed to a letter from Dr. Chung to the workers’ compensation adjuster in which the adjuster’s name was misspelled, and Dr. Chung’s medical records which sometimes misspelled Johnson’s name and incorrectly referred to Johnson as "her" or "herself". Based on this, the Court of Appeals determined that the Circuit Court’s factual findings were not supported by substantial evidence, and reversed its ruling.
MY TWO CENTS:
Under the standard of review provided by § 25-5-81 of the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, pure findings of fact made by the trial court shall not be reversed if they are supported by substantial evidence. It is well established under Alabama law "that the trial court is in the best position to observe the demeanor and credibility of the employee and other witnesses in a workers’ compensation case." See, Mayfield Trucking Co. v. Napier, 724 So. 2d 22 (Ala.Civ.App. 1998). In this case, the appellate court essentially re-weighed the credibility of the witnesses and evidence instead of deferring to the trial court. This is a very unusual circumstance.
A lesson to take away from this case is that, if you intend to rely on medical records as evidence, any inconsistencies or clerical errors in the records should be addressed with the doctor and resolved prior to trial.