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Appeals court affirms denial of workers’ comp benefits

May 9, 2017

A divided Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed the Indiana Worker’s Compensation Board’s decision to deny workers’ compensation benefits to a man after determining that his medical problems were not related to an on-the-job injury in 2010.

In Matthew Ward v. Lowe’s, 93A02-1609-EX-2133, Matthew Ward was working at a Lowe’s store in Bloomington in 2010 when he lost his footing, sprained his left ankle and fractured his large toe. An examining doctor determined that Ward’s varicose veins in his left leg, caused by a previous surgery, put him at an elevated risk for deep vein thrombosis, or DVT.

Ward was directed by a doctor to wear a controlled ankle movement walking boot to immobilize his left foot and ankle, and Lowe’s accepted his injury as compensable and provided him with statutory medical care. A few weeks later, Ward went to the emergency room with a complaint of chest pain, and a subsequent exam showed “a large amount of embolic material with the pulmonary arteries consistent with (a) large amount of bilateral pulmonary embolus,” as well as DVT in his lower left leg.

But by the following October, a doctor noted improvement in Ward’s pulmonary embolisms, and Ward was cleared to return to work in December 2010 with no restrictions and a zero-impairment rating for his left ankle and left large toe. Ward then moved to Chicago and took a “very labor intensive” job with Wal-Mart and began experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath one day on the job in 2012.

A doctor diagnosed him with “acute to subacute left PE” and DVT and was told that he would require lifelong anticoagulation. Ward filed an application for adjustment of claim with the Indiana Worker’s Compensation Board, and Dr. Robert Gregori concluded that Ward’s medical treatment could date back to his 2010 injury at Lowe’s. Additionally, Gregori calculated a 23 percent whole person impairment because of the work injury.

But during a single-member hearing of the board, member Krysten LeFavour determined Ward had failed to show his episode at Wal-Mart was related to his Lowe’s injury. The full board adopted LeFavour’s decision, prompting Ward’s appeal.

On appeal, Ward argued that Gregori’s report “compels reasonable people to reach a conclusion contrary to the Board’s.” But a majority of an Indiana Court of Appeals panel disagreed Tuesday, with Judge Cale Bradford writing, “Dr. Gregori’s expert opinion notwithstanding, the record allows for the conclusion that Ward’s 2012 PEs were more likely proximately caused by an intervening agent than by the 2010 injury.”

Specifically, the majority pointed to Ward’s personal decision to stop taking anticoagulants after his PEs were resolved and to take a labor-intensive job.

“Even if we assume that Ward’s 2010 injuries were a ‘but-for’ cause of the 2012 PEs, significantly more than a ‘slender thread of evidence’ supports a conclusion that Wade’s decisions concerning his healthcare and work were their proximate cause,” Bradford wrote.

But Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik dissented, writing in a separate opinion that she would reverse the board’s decision because “Ward presented a doctor’s opinion that his May 2012 episode was caused by his work injury, and because neither Lowe’s nor the Board identified substantial reason for rejecting that opinion.” Vaidik also wrote she would remand the case for a determination of benefits.
 

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