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Wyatt v. Baptist Health System, Inc.

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

July 21, 2017

Laura Wyatt
Baptist Health System, Inc.

         Appeal from Shelby Circuit Court (CV-16-211)

          THOMAS, Judge.

         Laura Wyatt ("the employee") was employed by Baptist Health System, Inc. ("the employer"), as a patient-care technician at Shelby Baptist Medical Center ("the medical center"). As a patient-care technician, the employee was responsible for various patient-care tasks, including activities like taking vital signs and changing bed linens. On November 28, 2015, the employee was carrying a plastic bag filled with soiled bed linens and towels to what she referred to as the "soiled utility room." When she lifted the bag and twisted to place it on the top of the already full linen cart, the employee felt a sharp pain in her back followed by a burning sensation and pain down her legs into her toes.

         The employee, using a handrail in the hallway for support, walked to a nearby chair and sat down to see if the pain would subside. The charge nurse noticed her and questioned whether she could get up and walk. With the charge nurse's assistance, the employee stood up, but she could not lift her feet to walk; instead, she had to shuffle her feet. The charge nurse assisted her back into the chair, and, ultimately, the employee was transported to the emergency room of the medical center. By the time she reached the emergency room, she was unable to move from the waist down. Later, she lost feeling in her lower extremities and was unable to urinate.

          The employee was admitted that same day into the medical center, where she stayed for approximately 10 days before being transferred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham ("UAB") hospital. After a four-day stay at UAB hospital, the employee concluded her convalescence at an inpatient physical-therapy program at Spain Rehabilitation Center. She was released from the Spain Rehabilitation Center on January 16, 2016. The employee was diagnosed with transverse myelitis and still suffers from weakness in her legs, trouble with walking and with balance, and issues with her bladder and bowels.

         In December 2015, the employee sued the employer in the Jefferson Circuit Court, seeking benefits under the Alabama Workers' Compensation Act, codified at Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-1 et seq. The employer moved for a change of venue, which the Jefferson Circuit Court denied, and the employer filed a petition for the writ of mandamus in this court. We granted the petition and issued the writ directing the Jefferson Circuit Court to transfer the employee's action to the Shelby Circuit Court ("the trial court"). See Ex parte Baptist Health System, Inc., 210 So.3d 618 (Ala. Civ. App 2016). After a trial conducted on October 28, 2016, the trial court entered a judgment in favor of the employer, concluding that the employee had failed to prove that her condition had resulted from a work-related accident. In its judgment, the trial court explained that it had found the testimony of Dr. Gordon Kirschberg and Dr. Diane Counce "more well-reasoned, medically sound, and persuasive than the testimony offered by" Dr. William Meador. The employee timely appealed.

         Our review of this case is governed by the Workers' Compensation Act, which states, in pertinent part: "In reviewing pure findings of fact, the finding of the circuit court shall not be reversed if that finding is supported by substantial evidence." Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-81(e)(2). Therefore, this court "will view the facts in the light most favorable to the findings of the trial court." Whitsett v. BAMSI, Inc., 652 So.2d 287, 290 (Ala. Civ. App. 1994), overruled on other grounds, Ex parte Trinity Indus., Inc., 680 So.2d 262, 269 (Ala. 1996). Further, the trial court's finding of fact is supported by substantial evidence if it is "supported by 'evidence of such weight and quality that fair-minded persons in the exercise of impartial judgment can reasonably infer the existence of the fact sought to be proved.'" Ex parte Trinity Indus., 680 So.2d at 269 (quoting West v. Founders Life Assurance Co. of Florida, 547 So.2d 870, 871 (Ala. 1989), and citing Ala. Code 1975, § 12-21-12(d)). Our review of legal issues is without a presumption of correctness. Ala. Code 1975, § 25-5-81(e)(1); see also Ex parte Trinity Indus., 680 So.2d at 268.

         The employee and Dr. Counce testified at the October 2016 trial.[1] The employee's medical records and the deposition testimony of Dr. Meador and Dr. Kirschberg were admitted into evidence. Other documentary evidence, including a surveillance recording and photographs depicting soiled-linen bags and a linen cart like those used at the medical center, were also admitted into evidence.

         The employee testified to the facts recounted above, which were largely undisputed. She explained that she had suffered pain when attempting to toss the soiled-linen bag into the linen cart, that she began to suffer weakness and ultimately paralysis in her lower extremities, and that she became unable to urinate. She admitted having suffered previous back injuries at work, all of which, she said, had resolved and had not caused her any continued problems.

         The employee explained that, after her discharge from the Spain Rehabilitation Center, she was still confined to a wheelchair but that through physical therapy she had advanced to using a walker and then a cane to assist her with walking. She testified that she wears a device called a "toe-off" or "AFO" that, she said, prevents her from dragging her feet. The employee also testified that she had been prescribed physical therapy but that she was unable to attend therapy sessions because she could not afford to pay for them.

         The employee recounted that she still suffered bowel and bladder problems. She said that she had to catheterize herself, that she continued to retain urine, and that she would leak urine if she laughed or sneezed. In addition, the employee said that she also suffered bowel leakage.

         Dr. Meador testified in his deposition that he had personally evaluated the employee on February 29, 2016, and on June 13, 2016. He explained that he had reviewed the employee's earlier medical records and diagnostic imaging studies, including the reports related to two magnetic resonance imaging ("MRI") scans performed in December 2015, and that he had ordered another MRI scan in May 2016. According to Dr. Meador, the MRI films and other diagnostic imaging studies were all "negative." That is, he explained that the diagnostic imaging studies had not revealed any trauma to the employee's spine or any cause of the employee's symptoms. However, Dr. Meador diagnosed the employee with transverse myelitis, which he described as "any dysfunction at an isolated level or multiple levels of the spinal cord." He testified that transverse myelitis occurs from one of four causes: a traumatic injury, an ischemic event, an infection, or inflammation.

         According to Dr. Meador, approximately one quarter of patients have normal diagnostic imaging studies despite having transverse myelitis. Although Dr. Meador admitted that he could not definitively say what caused the employee's transverse myelitis, he opined that the employee likely suffered an ischemic event, or loss of blood in the spinal cord, which, he said, is also called a spinal-cord stroke. He explained that he based his conclusion on the speed at which the employee developed her symptoms, despite the fact that the diagnostic imaging studies revealed no evidence of spinal-cord stroke.

         When asked whether the November 28, 2015, incident at work had caused the employee's transverse myelitis, Dr. Meador candidly admitted that he did not know the answer to that question. He testified, however, that, based on the facts as recounted by the employee and her medical records, he had concluded that the most likely cause of the employee's symptoms was that the lifting and twisting motion performed by the employee had likely impinged an artery in the lower back known as the artery of Adamkiewicz, causing a loss of blood flow and a ...

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