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Bridges v. Gaten's Adventures Unlimited, L.L.C.

Court of Appeal of Louisiana, First Circuit

April 2, 2015

JULIA BRIDGES
v.
GATEN'S ADVENTURES UNLIMITED, L.L.C

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On Appeal from Office of Workers' Compensation, District 6, Parish of Tangipahoa, State of Louisiana. Trial Court No. 13-04187. The Honorable Gwendolyn F. Thompson, Workers' Compensation Judge Presiding.

Daren Sarphie, Metairie, Louisiana, Attorney for Plaintiff/Appellee, Julia Bridges.

Richard J. Voelker, Stephen W. Brooks, Jr., Covington, Louisiana, Attorneys for Defendant/Appellant, Gaten's Adventures Unlimited, L.L.C.

BEFORE: McDONALD, CRAIN, AND HOLDRIDGE, JJ.

OPINION

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[2014 1132 La.App. 1 Cir. 2] CRAIN, J.

In this workers' compensation proceeding, the employer, Gaten's Adventures Unlimited, L.L.C., appeals a judgment in favor of the employee, Julia Bridges. At issue on appeal is whether the evidence sufficiently established the following: (1) Bridges was in an accident that caused injuries covered by the workers' compensation act, (2) Bridges was temporarily totally disabled for several weeks after the accident, (3) Bridges is entitled to supplemental earnings benefits, and (4) awards of penalties and attorney fees are warranted because Gaten's failed to pay disability and medical benefits without reasonably controverting the claim. Finding merit in Gaten's challenges to the awards of disability benefits, we reverse those awards and reverse the award of penalties and attorney fees for the failure to pay those benefits. We affirm the separate award of penalties and attorney fees for Gaten's failure to pay medical expenses and, in response to her answer to the appeal, award Bridges additional attorney fees on appeal.

FACTS

Bridges worked as a bus driver for Gaten's on a part-time basis for $125 per day on assigned trips. The company advised drivers daily if their services were needed and assigned trips accordingly. On May 2, 2013, only a few months into her employment, Bridges drove a bus transporting junior high school students from Mandeville to Lake Charles for a one-day field trip. The trip proceeded without incident until the group stopped for lunch while returning home.

After finishing her lunch, Bridges returned to the bus and was in the driver's seat when the mother of a handicapped

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student attempted to get the child back on the bus. The student's mother removed the child from his wheelchair, but when she appeared unable to get him on the bus, Bridges positioned herself on the steps and took the child in her arms. As Bridges turned with the child, she felt a sharp pain in her lower back that extended down her right side. She did not mention the [2014 1132 La.App. 1 Cir. 3] pain to anyone on the bus and was able to drive the bus for the remainder of the trip. After unloading the passengers in Mandeville, Bridges returned the bus to Gaten's office in Hammond, but the office was closed by the time she arrived.

Bridges returned to the office the following morning, a Friday, to submit her paperwork for the trip and to report the accident to her immediate supervisor, Preston Davis; however, she was unable to locate Davis. She waited about an hour and then left. During the weekend, Bridges continued to experience a sharp pain that extended down her right leg, so she went to the emergency room at Lallie Kemp Hospital on Saturday. According to Bridges, she told the triage nurse and the attending physician about her back pain and the accident on the bus. The doctor gave her a shot and some prescriptions for medication, which Bridges filled.

Bridges went to Gaten's office the following Monday morning, four days after the accident, and reported the accident to Davis. According to Bridges, Clarence Gaten, the owner of the company, told her to go to the doctor, so she went to the emergency room at North Oaks Medical Center. She received another shot and additional prescriptions along with some paperwork; however, when she attempted to deliver the paperwork to Gaten's, Davis advised her that she needed to contact the company's insurance carrier. According to Bridges, Gaten's did not provide her with any contact information for the insurance carrier.

Bridges sought treatment again that same week at North Oaks Clinic with Dr. Mark Daunis. She described how the pain began with the accident on the bus, and, after an examination, Dr. Daunis diagnosed her with a lumbar sprain. He cleared Bridges to return to work for " light duty" with " no stooping, twisting, bending, squatting" and " no pushing, no climbing . . . [and] no duties where individual cannot take rest breaks." Bridges returned to Dr. Daunis nine days later and reported that her pain was worse and the medications were not helping. Dr. Daunis recommended that she see an orthopedic surgeon. Approximately one [2014 1132 La.App. 1 Cir. 4] month later, Bridges' counsel forwarded a letter to Gaten's self-insurance fund, LCT A Workers' Comp, requesting authorization for Bridges to treat with a neurosurgeon, Dr. Lori Summers, but Bridges never received authorization for that treatment. Bridges did not return to Dr. Daunis and received no further medical treatment for any condition related to the accident on the bus.

Citing continued problems with her low back that prevented her from driving, Bridges did not return to work at Gaten's, nor did she return to another job she held at that same time as a transport driver and mental health technician for Oceans Behavioral Hospital. She applied for unemployment benefits in July 2013, and certified that she was able to work and was seeking work. On July 9, 2013, approximately two months after the accident, she applied for a " sitting position" with Home Instead Senior Care and was hired shortly thereafter. After training for several weeks, Bridges received her first compensation from Home Instead in August 2013.

Bridges filed a workers' compensation claim against Gaten's seeking wage benefits, reimbursement of out-of-pocket medical

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expenses, treatment by Dr. Summers, and an award of penalties and attorney's fees. Gaten's initially admitted that Bridges suffered an injury on the date alleged, but later answered alleging, in part, that Gaten's was " continuing to evaluate and determine whether this is a compensable claim" arising out of " a work-related accident."

At trial Bridges relied entirely on her own testimony and documentary evidence and presented no other witnesses in person or by deposition. Gaten's presented testimony from its owner and two employees, but did not call any witness to dispute Bridges' description of the accident or her injuries. At the conclusion of the trial, the workers compensation judge (WCJ) ruled for Bridges, awarding her temporary total disability benefits from the date of the accident [2014 1132 La.App. 1 Cir. 5] through August 15, 2013, supplemental earnings benefits thereafter, medical benefits, and penalties and attorney fees.

Gaten's appealed and contends that the evidence does not establish that an accident occurred or, if it occurred, that it caused an injury covered by the workers compensation act (Act). Gaten's also argues that the evidence did not establish that Bridges was temporarily totally disabled after the accident, or that she was entitled to supplemental earnings benefits. Finally, Gaten's asserts that the WCJ erred in awarding penalties and attorneys fees. Bridges answered the appeal and seeks an award of attorney fees and costs incurred on appeal.

DISCUSSION

Accident and Injury Covered by ...


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