June 26, 2015
Todd Entrekin, Etowah County Sheriff
Jerry Frederic Lasseter
from Etowah Circuit Court. (CV-12-900017).
Presiding Judge. Pittman, Thomas, Moore, and Donaldson, JJ.,
THOMPSON, Presiding Judge.
Entrekin, in his official capacity as sheriff of Etowah
County (" the sheriff" ), appeals from a judgment
of the Etowah Circuit Court (" the trial court" )
granting Jerry Frederic Lasseter's motion to compel
payment of medical expenses pursuant to a workers'
compensation settlement agreement (" the agreement"
) entered into by the parties.
January 16, 2012, Lasseter filed in the trial court a
complaint alleging that on July 20, 2010, he had
been injured in a motor-vehicle accident (" the 2010
accident" ) that occurred during the course of his
employment as an Etowah County sheriff's deputy. The
parties, stipulating that they were subject to the Alabama
Workers' Compensation Act, § 25-5-1 et seq., Ala.
Code 1975, entered into the agreement on November 12, 2013.
The agreement stated that Lasseter alleged that the 2010
accident had " resulted in an injury to his spine,
specifically at levels T-11 and T-8," indicating an
injury to his thoracic spine. The agreement also stated that
the parties had agreed to a lump-sum settlement in the amount
of $22,500 as full compensation for the alleged injury and
that payment of the lump sum released the sheriff from all
liability for past, present, and future compensation benefits
regarding the alleged injury. However, the
agreement also provided that the sheriff would remain liable
for Lasseter's future medical expenses associated with
the alleged injury. The trial court approved the agreement
and adopted it as its judgment on November 12, 2013.
3, 2014, Lasseter filed in the trial court a " motion to
compel medical treatment." Lasseter attached to that
motion a letter from Meadowbrook Insurance Group ("
MIG" ), the third-party administrator of the Etowah
County Commission's workers' compensation fund, which
was responsible for meeting the sheriff's obligations as
to medical expenses under the agreement, to Dr. Michelle
Turnley, Lasseter's treating physician. That letter
informed Dr. Turnley that, in the future, MIG would cover
treatment for Lasseter only at the T-8 and T-11 levels of his
thoracic spine. According to Lasseter's motion, Dr.
Turnley had issued orders prescribing epidural injections to
Lasseter's lumbar spine, and MIG had sent Dr. Turnley the
letter in response to those orders. It is undisputed that MIG
had covered epidural injections to Lasseter's lumbar
spine before the parties entered into the agreement.
sheriff filed in the trial court a response to Lasseter's
motion. Although the sheriff conceded that, pursuant to the
agreement, he was liable for medical expenses associated with
treatment to Lasseter's thoracic spine at the T-8 and
T-11 levels, he argued that he was not liable for medical
expenses associated with treatment to Lasseter's lumbar
spine because there had been no determination of
compensability for any injury to the lumbar spine and because
the agreement explicitly limited coverage for future medical
expenses to those associated with treatment of the thoracic
October 3, 2014, the trial court held a hearing on
Lasseter's motion to compel at which it heard arguments
of the parties' attorneys but received no testimony or
other evidence. Lasseter's attorney argued that, since
the 2010 accident, Lasseter had received " multiple
series" of epidural injections to his lumbar spine that
MIG had covered but was no longer willing to cover after the
parties entered into the agreement. Lasseter's attorney
further argued that, because MIG had covered treatment to
Lasseter's lumbar spine before the parties entered into
the agreement, Lasseter would not have entered into a
settlement agreement that would prohibit his ability to
recover medical expenses for that treatment. On the other
hand, the sheriff's attorney argued that the plain
language of the agreement explicitly limited coverage for
medical expenses to those expenses associated with treatment
provided to the T-8 and T-11 levels of Lasseter's
thoracic spine. At the close of the hearing, the trial court
asked the parties to brief the issues. On October 15, 2014,
the trial court entered a judgment granting Lasseter's
motion to compel and ordering the sheriff to provide for the
" treatment of epidural injections to [Lasseter's]
lumbar spine." The sheriff timely appealed.
appeal, the sheriff argues that the trial court erred
because, he says, it expanded the scope of the agreement by
requiring him to cover medical expenses for epidural
injections to Lasseter's lumbar spine. The sheriff
argues, as he did in the trial court, that the agreement
expressly limits his liability for Lasseter's future
medical expenses to those expenses associated with the injury
referenced in the agreement, i.e., expenses incurred for
treatment of the thoracic spine at the T-8 and T-11 levels.
Because the trial court received no ore tenus evidence before
entering its judgment, this court reviews that judgment
without a presumption of correctness. Flanagan Lumber Co.
v. Tennison, 160 So.3d 801, 806 (Ala.Civ.App. 2014). See
also § 25-5-81(e)(1), Ala. Code 1975 (" In
reviewing the standard of proof set forth herein and other
legal issues, review by the Court of Civil Appeals shall be
without a presumption of correctness." ).
Alabama law concerning the effect of settlement agreements in
workers' compensation cases is well settled.
" In the absence of fraud, a workers' compensation
settlement supported by valuable consideration, unambiguous
in meaning, will be given effect according to the intention
of the parties judged by the court from what appears within
the four corners of the instrument itself, and parol evidence
is not admissible to impeach or vary its terms."
Masonry Co. v. Aldridge, 25 So.3d 464, 467 (Ala.Civ.App.
agreement states that the 2010 accident allegedly "
resulted in an injury to [Lasseter's] spine, specifically
at levels T-11 and T-8." The agreement goes on to state
that the lump-sum settlement Lasseter received represented
all compensation benefits " in any way connected with
the above described accident, injury and/or disability"
and that Lasseter " is entitled to future medical
expenses with regard to this injury." (Emphasis added.)
The plain, unambiguous language of the agreement indicates
that Lasseter and the sheriff entered into an agreement
regarding an injury to Lasseter's thoracic spine at the
T-8 and T-11 levels, that the lump sum Lasseter received was
a settlement of compensation benefits for that injury alone,
and that Lasseter would be entitled to future medical
expenses with regard to that injury. There is no mention in
the agreement of any injury to Lasseter's lumbar spine.
Thus, the language in the agreement provides that Lasseter is
entitled to future medical expenses associated with treatment
to the T-8 and T-11 levels of his thoracic spine. That
language is unambiguous and cannot, on its face, be
interpreted as providing Lasseter with coverage for future
medical expenses associated with treatment of his lumbar
concedes that the unambiguous language of the agreement
controls and that parol evidence is inadmissible to vary the
terms of the agreement. Nevertheless, he argues that an
employee may recover future medical expenses for treatment of
injuries not specifically excluded in a settlement agreement.
Lasseter cites three cases in support of that proposition:
Shop-A-Snak Food Mart, Inc. v. Penhale, 693 So.2d
479 (Ala.Civ.App. 1997); Central LP Gas, Inc. v.
Walls, 656 So.2d 890 (Ala.Civ.App. 1995); and Waters
v. Alabama Farmers Cooperative, Inc., 681 So.2d 622
(Ala.Civ.App. 1996). We have reviewed those cases and have
determined that they are distinguishable.
Shop-A-Snak, the employee in that case pleaded in her
complaint that her work-related accident had resulted in
injuries to her right hand, thumb, wrist, and arm. At trial,
the employee proved that, as a result of the work-related
accident, she suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome in her
right upper extremity. The employer argued that its defense
had been prejudiced because the employee had not specifically
pleaded carpal tunnel syndrome in her complaint. This court,
referencing an opinion from our supreme court, held that an
injured employee is not required to plead a specific
diagnosis to explain a work-related injury.
Shop-A-Snak, 693 So.2d at 481. Lasseter relies on
that holding to support his argument that he should be
entitled to recover medical expenses associated with
treatment to his lumbar spine despite the fact that no injury
to his lumbar spine is mentioned in the
agreement. However, the issue in Shop-A-Snak was the
specificity required in an employee's pleadings filed in
a workers' compensation case. In this case the issue is
not with the language of Lasseter's pleadings but,
rather, is with the language of a settlement agreement into
which Lasseter voluntarily entered that explicitly limits
coverage for his future medical expenses to a specific
injury. Thus, because the issue in Shop-A-Snak was one of the
language of pleadings, and the issue in this case is one of
the language of a settlement agreement, Lasseter's
reliance on Shop-A-Snak is without merit.
reliance on Central Gas also fails to support his argument.
In that case, the employee injured his foot in a 1989
accident, and the parties entered into a settlement agreement
under which the employer would pay all future medical
expenses the employee incurred for treatment of the injured
foot. The trial court in that case entered a judgment
adopting the parties' settlement agreement; that judgment
stated, in part, that the employer retained "
'liability [for] future reasonable medical expenses which
[were] proven to be directly related to the accident from
which [the] claim [arose].'" Central Gas,
656 So.2d at 894 (emphasis omitted). In 1994, the employee
filed a motion seeking to recover expenses for surgery and
treatment to his back. The employer denied liability on the
ground that those expenses were not related to the 1989
injury. Because the trial court in that case found that the
employee had presented sufficient evidence to support a
finding that his back injury was " 'caused by and
related to'" his foot injury, the trial court
entered a judgment allowing the employee to recover medical
expenses associated with treatment of his back injury.
Central Gas, 656 So.2d at 892. This court affirmed
that judgment on appeal. Id. at 894. Thus, because
the employee in Central Gas was able to recover future
medical expenses associated with treatment of his back, even
though the settlement agreement and the initial judgment in
that case referenced only an injury to the employee's
foot, Lasseter relies on Central Gas to support his argument
that he should be entitled to recover future medical expenses
for treatment of his lumbar spine.
unlike the judgment in Central Gas, the judgment in this case
does not entitle Lasseter to future medical expenses that are
proven to be directly related to the injury to Lasseter's
thoracic spine. Rather, it provides that Lasseter is entitled
to future medical expenses " resulting from the injury
of July 20, 2010," i.e., the injury to Lasseter's
thoracic spine at the T-8 and T-11 levels. Furthermore, even
if we were to construe the agreement as entitling Lasseter to
future medical expenses for any treatment he could show was
related to the injury referenced in the agreement, Lasseter
presented no evidence indicating that the epidural injections
to his lumbar spine were necessitated by or related to the
injury to his thoracic spine. In fact, Dr. Turnley
unequivocally stated in her deposition taken before the
parties entered into the agreement that the fractures
Lasseter suffered to the T-8 and T-11 levels were the only
" new" injuries Lasseter suffered as a result of
the 2010 accident, and she further indicated that " the
other things that were going on in [Lasseter's]
back" appeared " more degenerative in nature"
and that she " couldn't relate [them] directly to
the injury" Lasseter suffered as a result of the 2010
record includes an uncertified copy of a report comparing an
MRI of Lasseter's lumbar spine performed one week after
the 2010 accident with a prior MRI of his lumbar spine
performed in 2005.
That report indicates that a " small subligamental
herniation at [the] L5" level of Lasseter's lumbar
spine was " prominent" and was " more
obvious" on the 2010 MRI than it was on the 2005 MRI.
However, nothing in that report indicates that the 2010
accident resulted in any injury to Lasseter's lumbar
spine, and given Dr. Turnley's statement that the "
other things ... going on in [Lasseter's] back ... looked
more degenerative in nature" and that she "
couldn't relate [them] directly to the [July 20, 2010,]
injury," we cannot say that the report Lasseter
submitted does anything more than provide speculation as to
whether Lasseter's complications with his lumbar spine
were caused by or are related to the injury he suffered in
the 2010 accident. Evidence in a workers' compensation
case that provides nothing more than speculation or "
'mere possibilities'" will not " 'serve
to " guess" the employer into liability.'"
Ex parte Southern Energy Homes, Inc., 873 So.2d
1116, 1122 (Ala. 2003) (quoting Hammons v. Roses Stores,
Inc., 547 So.2d 883, 885 (Ala.Civ.App. 1989)).
Lasseter argues that Alabama Farmers Cooperative supports his
contention that the agreement does not prohibit him from
recovering future medical expenses incurred as a result of
treatment to his lumbar spine because that injury was not
specifically excluded in the agreement. The employee in
Alabama Farmers Cooperative suffered an injury in 1972, and
in 1974 he entered into an agreement settling his claims for
that injury but leaving open his right to recover future
medical expenses. In 1993, the employee sued the employer to
recover medical expenses that he alleged were incurred as a
result of an aggravation of the 1972 injury. The trial court
in that case entered a summary judgment in favor of the
employer. This court reversed the trial court's summary
judgment because we held that there was a genuine issue of
material fact as to whether the employee's condition in
1993 was an aggravation of the 1972 injury. Alabama
Farmers Coop., 681 So.2d at 624. Thus, similar to the
circumstances in Central Gas, we held that, if the employee
in Alabama Farmers Cooperative was able to show that his
condition in 1993 was an aggravation of his 1972 injury, he
would be entitled to recover medical expenses incurred in
1993 for treatment of his condition. 681 So.2d at 623. As we
noted in our discussion of Central Gas, supra, Lasseter has
presented no evidence indicating that the condition of his
lumbar spine is related to the injury to his thoracic spine.
Thus, Alabama Farmers Cooperative does not provide support
for Lasseter's argument.
Lasseter's argument that Shop-A-Snak, Central Gas, and
Alabama Farmers Cooperative required the sheriff to
specifically exclude, in the agreement, Lasseter's right
to recover medical expenses for treatment of Lasseter's
lumbar spine to avoid liability for those expenses, our
examination of those cases reveals no such holding.
Furthermore, we note that it would be unreasonable and
impractical to require an employer entering into a settlement
agreement to specifically exclude responsibility for future
medical expenses for each part of the body for which it does
not agree to be held liable.
the agreement in this case specifically limits Lasseter's
right to recover future medical expenses to treatment
provided to his thoracic spine, we hold that the trial court
erred in requiring the sheriff to cover medical expenses
associated with treatment to Lasseter's lumbar spine.
Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's judgment and
remand the cause for the trial court to enter a judgment
consistent with this opinion.
REVERSED AND REMANDED WITH INSTRUCTIONS.
Thomas, Moore, and Donaldson, JJ., concur.
Lasseter's complaint originally named
" Etowah County" as the defendant. The sheriff
filed in the trial court a motion to dismiss " the
Etowah County Commission" as the defendant and to
substitute the sheriff, in his official capacity, as the
proper defendant. In that motion, the sheriff admitted to
being the proper defendant in the case. The trial court
granted that motion.