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Prine v. Coastal Bridge Co., L.L.C.

Court of Appeal of Louisiana, First Circuit

October 29, 2014

JOSHUA M. PRINE
v.
COASTAL BRIDGE COMPANY, L.L.C. COASTAL BRIDGE COMPANY L.L.C. AND GRAY INSURANCE COMPANY
v.
JOSHUA MARK PRINE

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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On Appeal from the Office of Workers' Compensation Administration District 6, State of Louisiana. Docket Nos. 12-01537 and 12-08510. Honorable Gwendolyn F. Thompson, Workers' Compensation Judge Presiding.

AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART, AND RENDERED IN PART.

Thomas J. Hogan, Jr., Hogan & Hogan, Hammond, LA, Attorney for Appellant/Appellee, Joshua M. Prine.

John Ellinghausen, Kinney, Ellinghausen, Richard & Deshazo, New Orleans, LA, Attorney for Appellants/Appellees, Coastal Bridge Company, L.L.C., Gray, Insurance Company, and Pete Aranyosi.

BEFORE: PARRO, GUIDRY, AND DRAKE, JJ.

OPINION

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[2013 1630 La.App. 1 Cir. 2] PARRO, J.

The plaintiff and the defendants have appealed the judgment of the workers' compensation judge (WCJ), which failed to award the employee temporary total disability benefits (TTDs) or supplemental earnings benefits (SEBs), despite finding

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that he was injured in an accident, which arose out of and was within the course and scope of his employment. For the reasons that follow, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and render in part.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Joshua Prine was hired by Coastal Bridge Company, L.L.C. (Coastal), as a carpenter on January 12, 2012. He was initially assigned to a job site in Slidell, but was eventually moved to a project building a span bridge in Lafayette at the beginning of February. Because Mr. Prine lived in Independence, Louisiana, the job in Lafayette required that he stay in a motel during the week. Mr. Prine testified that he would usually stay in the motel beginning on Sunday evenings and that he would work Monday through Friday. He would then drive home on Friday evenings. His roommate at the motel was the foreman on the Lafayette job, Pete Aranyosi.

According to Mr. Prine, he usually woke up around 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. so that he could have breakfast at the motel before reporting to the job site, which was near the motel, for 6:30 a.m. On the morning of February 28, 2012, he reported to the job site in accordance with this schedule, as usual, and began wrecking forms using a maul. While carrying out this task, Mr. Prine injured his back. Mr. Prine notified Mr. Aranyosi of his injury, and Mr. Aranyosi allowed him to lie down in the back of his truck for a while to see if that would alleviate the pain; however, when that failed to provide relief, Mr. Aranyosi took Mr. Prine for drug and alcohol testing as a preliminary step to providing medical treatment.

Before leaving the job site, Mr. Aranyosi consulted with Sue Dellafiora, a Coastal employee who handles insurance claims, concerning Mr. Prine's accident. After he informed her of Mr. Prine's accident, Ms. Dellafiora advised Mr. Aranyosi to take Mr. Prine to an occupational medical center (clinic) for drug and alcohol testing in [2013 1630 La.App. 1 Cir. 3] accordance with Coastal's drug testing policy.[1] Ms. Dellafiora's e-mail memorializing this plan of action mentions only that Mr. Prine was to be taken to the clinic for drug and alcohol testing; no mention was made of taking Mr. Prine to seek medical treatment.

When they arrived at the clinic, the nurse took Mr. Prine into a room, handed him a cup, and requested that he provide her with a urine specimen. According to Mr. Prine, he told her that he wanted to see a doctor, but the nurse informed him that he had to provide a specimen before he could see a doctor. In response, Mr. Prine again advised her that he wanted to see a doctor. The clinic's receptionist then apparently notified Mr. Aranyosi that Mr. Prine had refused to provide a urine sample and submit to the drug test. Therefore, after speaking with his supervisors at Coastal, Mr. Aranyosi terminated Mr. Prine's employment for refusing to submit to the drug test.[2] No medical treatment was provided to Mr. Prine. Mr. Aranyosi then drove Mr. Prine back to the motel where they had been staying so that Mr.

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Prine could collect his automobile and belongings.

Mr. Prine attempted to drive himself back to his home in Independence; however, he testified that, after he had driven for a short distance, he was hurting and his feet were tingling. According to Mr. Prine, the situation escalated to the point that he could not feel his legs anymore. Therefore, he pulled over to the side of the road to call his mother and inform her about the accident. His parents then came to pick him up in Breaux Bridge and drove him to North Oaks Medical Center (North Oaks) in Hammond, Louisiana.[3] In addition to receiving emergency medical treatment at North Oaks, Mr. Prine submitted to a drug screen, which came back negative.

On March 7, 2012, Mr. Prine filed his first disputed claim for compensation [2013 1630 La.App. 1 Cir. 4] against Coastal, contending that no wage benefits had been paid and that no medical treatment had been authorized. In addition to seeking wage benefits and payment for his medical care, Mr. Prine sought penalties and attorney fees for Coastal's failure to pay his claim timely.[4]

The defendants answered the claim, denying that there was an accident within the course and scope of the plaintiff's employment. In addition, the defendants contended that Mr. Prine had refused to submit to drug and alcohol testing immediately after the alleged accident, despite the existence of a written and promulgated drug policy; therefore, according to the defendants, Mr. Prine was presumed to have been intoxicated at the time of the alleged accident.

Thereafter, Mr. Prine filed a motion for partial summary judgment concerning the intoxication issue. In opposition to the motion for summary judgment, the defendants filed, in part, an affidavit from Mr. Aranyosi, in which he claimed that, after the alleged accident, Mr. Prine stated that he had smoked marijuana and that he wanted to go to a Ra Shop on the way to the clinic so that he could obtain a substance that would help cleanse his system of the marijuana. Mr. Aranyosi further contended that Mr. Prine began searching for Ra Shops on his cell phone as they were driving to the clinic. Based at least in part on this affidavit, the trial court denied Mr. Prine's motion for partial summary judgment on the intoxication issue.

Mr. Prine then filed a third amended claim, contending that Mr. Aranyosi had willfully made false statements for the purpose of defeating a workers' compensation benefit or payment in violation of LSA-R.S. 23:1208(B). Specifically, the third amended claim alleged that Mr. Aranyosi's contentions that Mr. Prine had smoked marijuana and had wanted to find a Ra Shop prior to being treated on the morning of the accident were false. Thus, Mr. Prine alleged that Coastal and Gray Insurance were liable in solido for the penalties provided by LSA-R.S. 23:1208(C). The defendants answered the third amended claim and filed a reconventional demand against Mr. Prine, alleging that he had committed workers' compensation fraud pursuant to LSA-R.S. 23:1208(A), [2013 1630 La.App. 1 Cir. 5] thus forfeiting his right to workers' compensation benefits and subjecting himself to liability for civil penalties. According to the reconventional demand, Mr. Prine had falsely claimed that he was unable to perform

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any physical labor; however, following the accident, video surveillance carried out at the request of the defendants demonstrated that he had performed some mechanical work on a vehicle.

After a trial on the matter, the WCJ determined that Mr. Prine was injured as the result of an accident that occurred in the course and scope of his employment. The WCJ further determined that Mr. Prine had carried his burden of proof in demonstrating that he was not intoxicated at the time of the accident; thus, the WCJ found that the defendants were responsible for Mr. Prine's past medical treatment and expenses and for any reasonable and necessary future medical expenses. However, the WCJ did not order the defendants to pay any penalties, because it found that the defendants had reasonably controverted Mr. Prine's claim. Furthermore, the WCJ determined that Mr. Prine was not entitled to TTD benefits, because he had failed to bear his burden of proof that he was unable to perform any type of work.[5] Finally, the WCJ denied all fraud claims pursuant to LSA-R.S. 23:1208. All parties have appealed.[6]

STANDARD OF REVIEW

In a workers' compensation case, as in other cases, the appellate court's review of factual findings is governed by the manifest error or clearly wrong standard. Smith v. Louisiana Department of Corrections, 93-1305 (La. 2/28/94), 633 So.2d 129, 132; Kennedy v. Security Industrial Insurance Company, 623 So.2d 174, 175 (La.App. 1st Cir.), writ denied, 629 So.2d 389 (La. 1993). The two-part test for the appellate review of facts is: 1) whether there is a reasonable factual basis in the record for the finding of the trial court, and 2) whether the record establishes that the finding is not manifestly erroneous. Mart v. Hill, 505 So.2d 1120, 1127 (La. 1987). An appellate court may not set aside a trial court's factual finding unless, after reviewing the record in its entirety, it determines the trial court's finding was clearly wrong. Stobart v. State, through Dept. of Transportation and Development, 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La. 1993) [2013 1630 La.App. 1 Cir. 6]. Furthermore, when factual findings are based on determinations regarding the credibility of witnesses, the manifest error standard demands great deference to the trier of fact's findings; for only the fact finder can be aware of the variations in demeanor and tone that bear so heavily on the listener's understanding and belief in what is said. Rosell v. ESCO, 549 So.2d 840, 844 (La. 1989).

DISCUSSION

Defendants' Appeal

On appeal, the defendants contend that the WCJ erred in finding that Mr. Prine demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that an accident occurred, which arose out of and was within the course and scope of his employment. The defendants claim that Mr. Prine called no witnesses to corroborate his testimony that the accident occurred. In addition, the defendants contend that numerous inconsistencies in the record and testimony cast doubt on his version of events.

The Workers' Compensation Act provides coverage to an employee for personal injury by accident arising out of and in the course of his employment. LSA-R.S. 23:1031(A). Initially, a workers' compensation

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claimant has the burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that an accident occurred on the job and that he sustained an injury. Holiday v. Borden Chemical, 508 So.2d 1381, 1383 (La. 1987); Borel v. Dynamic Offshore Contractors, 626 So.2d 565, 567 (La.App. 3rd Cir. 1993), writ denied, 93-2993 (La. 1/28/94), 630 So.2d 801. A worker's testimony alone may be sufficient to discharge this burden of proof, provided two elements are satisfied: (1) no other evidence discredits or casts serious doubt upon the worker's version of the incident; and (2) the worker's testimony is corroborated by the circumstances following the alleged incident. Bruno v. Harbert International, Inc., 593 So.2d 357, 361 (La. 1992). Corroboration of the worker's testimony may be provided by the testimony of co-workers, spouses, friends, or by medical evidence. Bruno, 593 So.2d at 361. Barring circumstances that cast suspicion on the reliability of the worker's uncontradicted testimony, the WCJ should accept the testimony as true when [2013 1630 La.App. 1 Cir. 7] determining whether the worker has discharged his burden. Brown v. Kwok Wong, 01-2525 (La.App. 1st Cir. 12/20/02), 836 So.2d 315, 319.

Mr. Prine testified that he injured himself while swinging a maul as he was performing his job for Coastal. Mr. Prine testified that the maul twisted and ricocheted sideways and that he " heard something pop" in his back. Both Mr. Prine and Mr. Aranyosi testified that Mr. Prine notified Mr. Aranyosi that he had been injured while he was still on the job site and that Mr. Aranyosi took Mr. Prine to a clinic shortly thereafter.

Mr. Aranyosi completed an accident report regarding the injury, in which he noted that Mr. Prine had suffered a back sprain while " wrecking span all from under span." [7] Mr. Aranyosi noted that there were no unsafe actions or other personal factors, such as an improper attitude or lack of knowledge or skills, by Mr. Prine or others that contributed to the accident. Mr. Aranyosi also notified Coastal's employee, Ms. Dellafiora, about the accident. Nothing in Mr. Aranyosi's statements to Ms. Dellafiora or his comments on the accident form indicate that he doubted Mr. Prine's claims that he had been injured in an accident while working in the course and scope of his employment for Coastal. Indeed, Mr. Aranyosi testified at the trial of this matter that he did not have any reason to believe that Mr. Prine had not injured himself on the job on the date and time in question.

The evidence in the record further demonstrates that Mr. Prine was examined several hours after the accident at North Oaks. Specifically, his medical records from North Oaks indicate that Mr. Prine was examined at 2:42 p.m. on Tuesday, February 28, 2012, and that his complaint was noted as a back injury. The records further indicate that he had lower back pain, with pain going down his left leg, as well as pain between his shoulder blades. He further stated that his pain level at that time was 10/10. At North Oaks, Dr. Dewey Blackwell examined Mr. Prine and noted that he had " [m]oderate discomfort to palpation of the paralumbar and left SI area." Dr. Blackwell further recorded his impressions as " [l]ow back pain ... Lumbar strain 2. Herniated [2013 1630 La.App. 1 Cir. 8] nucleus pulposus -- doubt[.]"

The defendants contend that other events could have caused Mr. Prine's injuries. For example, they argue that Mr. Prine ...


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