This is an appeal by an employer and its insurance carrier from a judgment in favor of an employee, on the latter's claim for benefits under the Alaska Workmen's Compensation Act.
Thomas Turner, appellee, filed a claim for workmen's compensation benefits, alleging that he had been injured in the course of his employment with Perini Arctic Associates. Perini and its insurance carrier, Alaska Pacific Assurance Company, contested Turner's right to compensation, contending that his injury was sustained "while claimant was at home lifting a boat in his back yard," in an incident unrelated to his employment with Perini. The Alaska Workmen's Compensation Board found in favor of the employer and its insurance carrier, and denied Turner's claim. The superior court reversed.
The superior court concluded that there was insufficient evidence to overcome the statutory presumption
Turner was employed by Perini Arctic Associates from May, 1975, to May, 1976. During that period of time he worked "a minimum of twelve hours a day," seven days a week, as a cement truck driver and heavy equipment expediter on the Alaska pipeline project. His duties included, "Pushing, shoving, [and] lifting" heavy equipment, "loading it on the truck, [and] unloading it."
Turner testified before the Board that in September, 1975, he began to experience pain in his right leg, which the camp medics diagnosed as "a muscle problem, ... a charley-horse more or less." He was given Ben-Gay to rub on the leg, but that failed to alleviate the pain, which continued to plague him until December, 1975.
From December 4, 1975, to January 20, 1976, during a job-site shutdown, Turner remained at home where the pain in his leg subsided. When he resumed work, however, the pain grew progressively worse. He testified that on May 9, 1976, he volunteered for a "reduction in force" lay-off because he felt that he was unable to continue to perform his job, stating: "The physical exertion was too demanding. I couldn't continue at that time." He describes the events thereafter as follows:
Turner's visit to the doctor was apparently triggered by an incident that occurred on July 17, 1976. On that date, he experienced sharp pain in his back after lifting the tongue of a boat trailer. On July 22, 1976, he consulted Dr. Michael Newman at the Alaska Clinic, who ordered him immediately hospitalized and placed in traction. After more conservative treatment failed, a laminectomy was performed on August 12, 1976. Dr. Newman's diagnosis was that Turner had suffered a herniated intervertebral disc.
Dr. Newman testified that in his opinion Turner was first injured in the course of his employment with Perini; that the pain he experienced after lifting the boat trailer was part and parcel of the same injury, stating:
Turner's account of the events leading to his visit to Dr. Newman were corroborated in part, by the testimony of his wife and that of his camp supervisor, Robert Terry.
Mrs. Turner testified that before he went to work for Perini her husband's health was excellent and that he had no complaints of pain. When he returned home in December, 1975, he complained that his leg was bothering him, but said that it seemed to get better while he was not working.
In an affidavit filed with the Workmen's Compensation Board on March 3, 1977, Robert Terry stated that, while he was working for Perini, Turner complained to him of pain in his leg and advised him that he had consulted the camp medics. Turner, on one occasion, also informed him that he had fallen under his truck and injured his back. Terry's affidavit described his observations thereafter as follows:
The Board's ultimate conclusion was as follows:
Like the superior court, we think the Board erred in reaching this conclusion.
It is undisputed that the trailer lifting incident was the immediate cause of Turner's hospitalization. However, this court has previously held that if an "earlier compensable injury is a substantial factor contributing to the later injury, then the later injury is compensable." Cook v. Alaska Workmen's Compensation Board, 476 P.2d 29, 35 (Alaska 1970). See also 1 A. Larson, The Law of Workmen's Compensation § 13.11, at 348 (1978).
Apparently the Board concluded that Turner either suffered no injury while working for Perini or that, if he did, such injury was not a substantial factor contributing to the later injury. In essence, the Board chose to disbelieve Turner's account of the onset of his symptoms and rejected Dr. Newman's evaluation of his injuries. The Board emphasized Turner's failure to seek medical attention until after the trailer lifting incident, and his failure to mention any back or leg pain while visiting a medical clinic for a skin problem in January, 1976. Relying on Dr. Newman's notes, which were later related by him in his testimony, the Board further emphasized what it perceived as conflicts in the medical history
Seemingly ignored by the Board was the testimony of Turner's camp supervisor, Robert Terry, which strongly supported Turner's own testimony, and the opinion of his doctor, that his symptoms appeared and worsened while he was working for Perini.
As noted by the superior court, if the medical evidence is inconclusive, all doubts are to be resolved in favor of the claimant. Beauchamp v. Employer's Liability Assurance Corporation, 477 P.2d 993 (Alaska 1970). With this principle in mind, and under our holding in Cook v. Alaska Workmen's Compensation Board, 476 P.2d 29 (Alaska 1970), we believe the record in this case contains no substantial evidence that Turner's injury did not arise out of his employment with Perini. Therefore, the presumption that his injury came within the coverage of the Workmen's Compensation Act controls.
Dr. Newman later testified that it was his opinion that Turner's truck driving caused the acute disc protrusion. He stated that the lifting of the boat trailer was only the triggering of the acute attack that sent Turner to the hospital. As to a prior history of backaches, he concluded that they probably had no relationship to the present problem. As to the lack of reference to a work-related incident in the initial report, Newman stated that Turner had informed him of the incident initially and that his failure to note it in his report was a mere oversight. He stated that he thought it was mentioned in the hospital records. Such records were never presented and his explanation remained undisputed. As to the series of events — an initial acute disc protrusion, followed by a recovery and symptom free period, then a subsequent acute attack after a minor strain — Newman noted that this symptom complex is "classical."