On Application for Rehearing
THOMPSON, Presiding Judge.
The opinion of January 22, 2016, is withdrawn, and the following is substituted therefor.
Lowe's Home Centers, LLC ("Lowe's"), appeals from an order of the St. Clair Circuit Court ("the trial court") finding that Sarah Brown, its employee, had sustained an injury to her back arising out of and during the course of her employment with Lowe's. In the order, the trial court directed Lowe's to pay for Brown's medical treatment and an unspecified amount of temporary-total-disability benefits.
The record indicates the following. On August 29, 2014, Brown filed a workers' compensation action against Lowe's, seeking medical treatment for her back and an award of workers' compensation benefits. Lowe's answered, denying that Brown had a work-related injury, and it filed a motion requesting a hearing to determine what Lowe's called "medical necessity." In the motion, Lowe's specifically requested "a judicial determination of the medical necessity and causal relationship for any treatment of [Brown's] back." The trial court granted Lowe's request and held an evidentiary hearing on the issue of compensability on April 10, 2015.
The evidence presented at the April 10, 2015, hearing indicated the following. Brown had worked at Lowe's for three years before the events at issue in this action. On May 19, 2014 — a Sunday — Brown reported to work in the outdoor-power-equipment department of the Lowe's store in Leeds. She testified that she had been off work the day before and had come in to work at 4 a.m. Amber Gargus, an assistant manager at the Lowe's store in Leeds, worked overnight on May 18 into May 19, 2014, to prepare the store for inventory. She testified that she was Brown's supervisor. Gargus said that, when Brown came in at 4 a.m., Gargus asked her to assist in moving some six-foot stacks of plastic Adirondack chairs from the back of the store to the front. Gargus said that Brown told her she would help with the chairs "but that she may not be able to do much that day because she had hurt herself over the weekend." Gargus then added that Brown told her she had hurt her back. Gargus said she left the store for the day at 5 a.m.
Brown denied that the discussion Gargus described had taken place. She said that she saw Gargus and another Lowe's employee in the lawn and garden department when she "clocked in" on the morning of May 19. Brown testified that she
Brown testified that, by about 7:00 or 7:30 a.m., she had put away all the small freight but that she had had to wait for another associate from her department to arrive so that she could put away air-conditioning units. That job entailed using an "order picker," which was described as being like an elevator or fork lift that was used to raise heavy merchandise.
Brown testified that Heather Lauderdale, another Lowe's employee, arrived at work and that she asked Lauderdale to help with stacking the air-conditioning units. Because Lauderdale was pregnant, Brown said, she was to "delegate" Brown as Brown used the order picker to raise the air-conditioning units about ten feet up and then push them onto the rack. Brown said that the units weighed about 150 pounds each. After the units were raised, Brown said, she had to "bend, pivot, and stoop" to slide or push one unit on top of another. Brown said that, as she was trying to place one unit on the rack, she "felt an immediate pop in [her] back exactly four times, and [her] legs went completely numb and [she] had shooting pain down both sides." Brown said that she was able to lower the order picker because it was operated by foot. Brown also said that, at that time, Lauderdale was at a desk talking on the telephone to someone at her son's day-care facility because the child had been ill that morning.
Lauderdale testified that she did not spot for Brown the morning of May 19, 2014, and that Brown did not use the order picker that morning. Lauderdale said that, when she arrived at work between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m., Brown told her that her lower back was hurting and that Brown believed it was her sciatic nerve that was bothering her. Lauderdale also said that Brown had told her she had used the order picker about four days the week before.
Brown testified that the accident occurred at 8:30 a.m. She said that she talked to Jerry Crossley, Lowe's human-resources manager, and that, then, she made a 10 a.m. appointment that same day to see a chiropractor, Dr. Alan Walch. Brown said that she had not seen Dr. Walch previously. Dr. Walch's notes indicate that Brown was being seen on May 19, 2014, "due to injuries sustained while at work." The "Onset" portion of Dr. Walch's notes reiterates that Brown's condition was the result of an accident at work, but it also says that the symptoms had been present for a few days. The notes also state that Brown "advises fitting [sic] heavy bag and feeling a pop in her back. She did not have immediate pain symptoms." After examining Brown, Dr. Walch diagnosed her with a herniated disc and a sprain or strain and referred Brown to her primary-care physician. The notes also indicate that Brown should not return to work at that time.
The next day, May 20, 2014, Brown saw her personal doctor, Lea Clayton. Dr.
An MRI performed
Dr. Clayton prescribed pain medication and muscle relaxers for Brown. Brown, who said that she was trained as a physical therapist, testified that she continued to have back pain, and so she continued treatment with Dr. Clayton. Dr. Clayton's notes dated June 8, 2014, indicate that she referred Brown to Dr. Matthew Bennett for treatment, including possible injections "as [Brown] declines surgery at this time." The notes from July 15, 2014, state that Brown's pain was increasing and that she had back surgery scheduled for August 2014.
During her testimony, Brown acknowledged that Dr. Clayton had said that the "issues" with Brown's back were degenerative and that they had occurred over time. Brown further conceded that there was no way to tell how long the condition had been present. However, Brown said, she had not hurt her back before the morning of May 19, 2014, nor had she suffered from any lower back pain before that morning.
Dr. Clayton did not testify at the evidentiary hearing. At the conclusion of that hearing, Brown's attorney said that he wanted to give the trial court a brief and the testimony "adjacent" to the brief, which the attorney represented was Dr. Clayton's deposition testimony. However, Dr. Clayton's deposition was not marked as an exhibit, was not admitted into evidence, and the entire deposition is not included in the record on appeal. Excerpts of Dr. Clayton's deposition were attached as an exhibit to Lowe's brief in support of its motion to determine medical necessity.
On May 21, 2015, the trial court entered an order approving Brown's claim for workers' compensation benefits and ordering Lowe's "to immediately provide and pay for [Brown's] medical treatment related to her back and to pay such other workers' compensation benefits to which [Brown] is entitled pursuant to the Workers' Compensation Act including, without limitation, temporary total disability benefits." In the order, the trial court stated that the evidence presented was conflicting, that it could not reconcile the evidence, and that, as the trier of fact, it had
Lowe's filed a motion to alter, amend, or vacate the order, which was denied on July 9, 2015. On July 22, 2015, Lowe's filed a notice of appeal in the trial court and a motion seeking a stay of further proceedings in the workers' compensation case pending the outcome of the appeal. The trial court granted the motion to stay on July 23, 2015, and placed the case on its administrative docket.
In our opinion on original submission, this court held that, because the trial court did not determine the extent, if any, of Brown's disability, there was no final judgment capable of supporting an appeal and that the time for filing a timely petition for a writ of mandamus had passed. Accordingly, we declined to review the matter and dismissed what we considered to be an untimely mandamus petition.
On rehearing, Lowe's suggested that our original opinion was in conflict with Belcher-Robinson Foundry, LLC v. Narr, 42 So.3d 774 (Ala.Civ.App.2010), and its progeny. In Belcher-Robinson, this court wrote:
42 So.3d at 775-76. We note that, in Belcher-Robinson, the trial court did not specify the amount of temporary-total-disability benefits to be paid to the employee.
In this case, as in Belcher-Robinson, the trial court found that Brown's injury arose out of and in the course of her employment, ordered Lowe's to pay for medical treatment related to that injury, and ordered Lowe's to pay Brown an unspecified amount of temporary-total-disability benefits, among other things. We are unable to distinguish Belcher-Robinson from this case. Accordingly, on the authority of Belcher-Robinson, we now expressly hold that if a trial court enters a judgment finding that an injury is compensable, ordering payment for medical treatment, and awarding temporary-total-disability benefits, regardless of whether the amount of those benefits is specified in the judgment, this court will treat such a judgment as final for purposes of appeal. To the extent previous opinions have suggested that such a judgment is nonfinal and that review of such a judgment should be by a petition for a writ of mandamus, those opinions are overruled.
Accordingly, the trial court's order of May 21, 2015, was a final judgment for purposes of appeal. Lowe's filed a timely postjudgment motion from the May 21, 2015, judgment, which was denied on July 9, 2015. Lowe's then filed a timely notice of appeal. Therefore, we now address the merits of Lowe's appeal.
On appeal, Lowe's contends that the trial court erred in finding that Brown had had a work-related accident on May 19, 2014, or that Brown's back injury was related to any such accident. Specifically, Lowe's argues that Brown failed to meet her burden of proving either legal or medical causation for the back injury for which she seeks treatment and benefits.
Denmark v. Industrial Mfg. Specialists, Inc., 98 So.3d 541, 543-44 (Ala.Civ.App. 2012). Furthermore,
Ex parte Hayes, 70 So.3d 1211, 1215 (Ala. 2011).
As Lowe's points out,
Ex parte Southern Energy Homes, Inc., 873 So.2d 1116, 1121 (Ala.2003).
Lowe's argues that, for Brown to have established compensability in this case, the trial court had to have determined that every witness, other than Brown, who testified and the documentary evidence presented had to have been wrong. For example, regarding legal causation, Lowe's asserts that Gargus, Brown's supervisor, would had to have been "wrong" about Brown telling her that she had injured her back before Brown's shift began on May 19, 2014; that Lauderdale, Brown's coworker, would had to have been "wrong" regarding whether Brown had worked on the order picker the morning of May 19, 2014; and that Dr. Walch's records would had to have been "wrong" regarding Brown's report that symptoms of back pain had been present for a few days before Brown was seen on May 19, 2014.
On the other hand, Brown's testimony was that she began her shift by helping to unload a truck and that her back did not hurt at that time. Later in the morning, Brown said, she was using the order picker to place a 150-pound air-conditioning unit on a storage rack and, as she was moving the air conditioner into place, she felt four pops in her back. Brown said that her legs immediately went numb and that she felt "shooting pains" down both sides. According to Brown's testimony, Lauderdale was away from the order picker when the incident occurred. In its judgment, the trial court found it noteworthy that Gargus characterized Brown as a good employee and that Brown had been "Employee of the Month." The trial court also found that Gargus had left the store before the accident was said to have occurred.
The trial court recognized the conflicts in the testimony and, in its judgment, acknowledged that, as the trier of fact, it could not reconcile those conflicts. Therefore, the trial court stated: "[T]his Court
The Workers' Compensation Act ("the Act"), § 25-5-1 et seq., Ala.Code 1975, provides that the word "accident,"
§ 25-5-1(7). See also Ex parte Fairhope Health & Rehab, LLC, 175 So.3d 622, 627 (Ala.Civ.App.2015)(discussing the nature of an "accident" for purposes of the Act).
Brown's testimony regarding the events of the morning of May 19, 2014, and her testimony regarding how she injured her back while moving an air-conditioning unit into place constitute sufficient evidence to support the trial court's conclusion that Brown had been involved in a work-related accident that morning. Although other evidence presented could have led the trial court to reach a different conclusion, this court's role is not to reweigh the evidence before the trial court or to make the credibility determination the trial court apparently did in deciding whether Brown had proved legal causation. Ex parte Hayes, 70 So.3d at 1215. In other words, it is not the function of an appellate court to decide which party's evidence is better or more credible; instead, we are called upon only to review whether the trial court's judgment is supported by sufficient evidence. As this court wrote in J.C. v. State Department of Human Resources, 986 So.2d 1172, 1184 (Ala.Civ.App. 2007):
Our standard of review in this case requires us to view the facts in the light most favorable to the findings of the trial court and to affirm the judgment of the trial court if its findings are supported by substantial evidence and, if so, if the correct legal conclusions are drawn therefrom. Denmark, 98 So.3d at 543-44.
Based on our standard of review and the record before us, we cannot say that the trial court's determination that Brown proved legal causation is not supported by the evidence or is plainly and palpably wrong.
Lowe's also challenges the trial court's determination that Brown proved medical causation. Specifically, Lowe's contends that Brown failed to present substantial evidence to support the finding that her back condition was caused by a work-related injury. In support of its argument, Lowe's cites Dr. Walch's notes of May 19, 2014, which stated that Brown's symptoms had been "present for a few days" and that she "did not have immediate pain symptoms."
As previous opinions of this state's appellate courts have explained, the finder of fact can consider lay testimony as well as the testimony of medical experts when considering the issue of medical causation.
Hokes Bluff Welding & Fabrication v. Cox, 33 So.3d 592, 595-96 (Ala.Civ.App. 2008).
Brown testified that she had never had back trouble before the May 19, 2014, incident. She also said that she had not been a patient of Dr. Walch before May 19, 2014, and that the morning of May 19, 2014, was the first time she sought treatment for pain in her lower back. In response to questioning about the statement in Dr. Walch's notes that Brown's back
We agree with Lowe's that, from the evidence presented, a logical inference would be that Brown already had a degenerative back condition at the time of the May 19, 2014, incident. However, there is no evidence to indicate that Brown was unable to do her job before the incident. We also note that there is no medical evidence in the record indicating that Brown had a history of back pain or that she had sought medical treatment for a back condition before May 19, 2014. There is no question that Brown suffers from two herniated discs. However, Dr. Clayton was unable to provide a time as to when the herniations occurred, based on the MRI and her examinations of Brown.
It is well settled that an employee who suffers from a preexisting condition
SouthernCare, Inc. v. Cowart, 146 So.3d 1051, 1063 (Ala.Civ.App.2013).
From the evidence in the record, the trial court reasonably could have found that Brown had a preexisting degenerative back condition but that that condition did not become symptomatic or prevent Brown from doing her job until she attempted to move the 150-pound air-conditioning unit onto a shelf. In other words, the trial court could have found that Brown's back condition was latent or asymptomatic before the May 19, 2014, accident but that, in moving the air-conditioning unit, Brown sustained an injury that has left her unable to perform her job.
Based on the record before us, we conclude that the trial court's finding that Brown presented substantial evidence of medical causation is not plainly or palpably wrong. Again, to disregard Brown's testimony regarding the pain she felt when her back popped while moving the airconditioning unit and the subsequent continuing pain she has experienced since that incident would require this court to improperly reweigh the evidence. Ex parte Hayes, 70 So.3d at 1215.
For the reasons set forth above, we affirm the trial court's judgment finding that Brown suffered a compensable injury on May 19, 2014, and ordering Lowe's to pay for the medical treatment related to
APPLICATION GRANTED; OPINION OF JANUARY 22, 2016, WITHDRAWN; OPINION SUBSTITUTED; AFFIRMED.
PITTMAN, THOMAS, and DONALDSON, JJ., concur.
MOORE, J., concurs in the result, without writing.