Nebraska Court of Appeals Takes Issue With Trial Court’s Factual Findings in Recent Case
The Nebraska Court of Appeals recently decided the case of Hintz vs Farmers’ Cooperative Association, which appears to represent a departure from the normal standards of review applicable to workers’ compensation appeals. In the decision filed February 28, 2017, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision that the plaintiff was not entitled to further workers’ compensation benefits. The trial court found that the plaintiff failed to prove that his hip injury was the result of a work accident. In so doing, the Court of Appeals takes issue with the trial court’s factual findings on both the issues of the plaintiff’s credibility, as well as the medical evidence.
The plaintiff sustained an accident on November 13, 2014 when a tire on which he was working exploded, throwing him across the room. However, the plaintiff missed only a few days from work and did not seek any medical treatment following the work accident. The plaintiff told his medical providers that he was able to return to work full duty. Two coworkers testified that the plaintiff was able to return to work without difficulty. Then, on December 4, 2014, the plaintiff sustained an accident at home when he fell on the stairs and hit his right hip on the stairs. He then began seeking medical treatment for his right hip. The dispute decided by the trial court was whether the right hip injury, which later resulted in surgery, was caused by the work accident or was caused by the fall at home.
In its decision, the trial court found that the plaintiff did not seek medical treatment following the work accident, did not tell any of his medical providers that his right hip problems began after the work accident, and the plaintiff’s original statements and the testimony from two coworkers showed that the plaintiff was able to return to work without difficulties after the work accident. The court found that the plaintiff later changed his story and told his surgeon that his hip problem began after the work accident. The trial court noted that the plaintiff did not tell any of his medical providers that the hip injury occurred at work until after his employment was terminated. The trial court found that the surgeon’s opinion that the work accident caused the hip injury was based upon the plaintiff’s later claim that the hip problem began after the work accident. The trial court noted that this “new history” directly contradicted the earlier history the plaintiff had given and contradicted the coworkers’ testimony. The trial court ultimately found that the surgeon’s opinion lacked credible foundation because it was based on an inconsistent history given by the plaintiff. The court stated that it was not persuaded by the surgeon’s opinion and rejected it in its entirety. In conclusion, the trial court made the following statement, “The Court finds there is no medical evidence to substantiate a causal relationship between plaintiff’s right hip [condition], his employment with defendant, and any resultant injury.” The court went on to say that the evidence as a whole established that the plaintiff sustained the hip injury when he fell at home and not during the work accident.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court was clearly wrong in its findings. The Court of Appeals focused on the trial court’s statement that there was “no medical evidence” to substantiate the causal relationship between the hip injury and the work accident, quoting or mentioning this statement three times. The appeals court then went on to discuss the various medical opinions and provided its analysis of why the opinion offered by the employer did not constitute competent medical testimony, even though that opinion was not relied upon or discussed by the trial court. The appeals court also engaged in an apparent reweighing of whether the plaintiff’s testimony was credible. Ultimately, the appeals court found that the trial court was clearly wrong in finding that there was no medical evidence to substantiate a causal relationship between the hip injury and the work accident and reversed the decision, directing the trial court to “reconsider the claim in light of [the surgeon’s] competent medical opinion of causation and considering the beneficent purpose of Nebraska Workers’ Compensation Act.”
This opinion appears to represent a departure from the standards of review applicable to workers’ compensation cases. Such standards state that the credibility of witnesses is a determination to be made by the trial court and those decisions are not to be disturbed unless they are clearly wrong. The basis for this standard is that the trial court observes the witnesses and is in the best position to make such findings. A judgment on the credibility of witnesses is generally not reversed on appeal based on this standard of review. The appeals court appears to have deviated from that standard and appears to have substituted its view of the plaintiff’s credibility for the trial court’s view of the same. The trial court clearly found that the plaintiff’s version of events was not credible and therefore, the foundation for the surgeon’s opinion—information supplied by the plaintiff–was foundationally deficient, resulting in the trial court’s rejection of the surgeon’s opinion. The appeals court also appears to have reweighed the expert testimony. A determination of which expert to believe is also a factual finding to be made by the trial court and such findings are not to be disturbed on appeal unless clearly wrong. The appellate court appears to have engaged in reweighing the various opinions and finding that the surgeon’s opinion was in fact, “competent medical evidence,” which is contrary to the trial court’s factual finding.
Because this decision appears to represent some departure from the normal standards of review applied to a workers’ compensation cases, it is possible that the defendant might choose to appeal this decision to the Nebraska State Supreme Court. Given the long history of the applicable standards of review, a Supreme Court review of the Court of Appeals’ decision would be notable. We intend to monitor whether a further appeal is filed and the outcome of any such appeal. For questions regarding this case or Nebraska workers compensation, please don’t hesitate to contact attorney Jenny Panko at Jpanko@baylorevnen.com.