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All opinions are subject to modification and technical correction prior to official publication in the North Carolina Reports and North Carolina Court of Appeals Reports. In the event of discrepancies between the electronic version of an opinion and the print version appearing in the North Carolina Reports and North Carolina Court of Appeals Reports, the latest print version is to be considered authoritative.
HETTIE M. FAISON, Employee, Plaintiff, v. ALLEN CANNING
COMPANY,Employer, SELF-INSURED, Defendant
Filed: 20 April 2004
Workers' Compensation_-carpal tunnel syndrome--causation
The Industrial Commission did not err by concluding that there was no causal
relationship between plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and her job duties, and by denying
her workers' compensation benefits, because: (1) a doctor's testimony only established a
possibility that plaintiff's injuries were causally related to her employment; and (2) the causation
evidence failed to meet the standard of a reasonable degree of medical certainty that is necessary
to establish a causal link between plaintiff's injuries and her employment.
Appeal by plaintiff from Opinion and Award of the North
Carolina Industrial Commission entered 19 February 2003 by Chairman
Buck Lattimore. Heard in the Court of Appeals 16 March 2004.
Brumbaugh, Mu & King, P.A., by Nicole D. Wray, for plaintiff-
Brooks, Stevens & Pope, P.A., by Joy H. Brewer and Dana C.
Moody, for defendant-appellee.
Hettie M. Faison (plaintiff) appeals from the Opinion and
Award of the Full Commission of the North Carolina Industrial
Commission (Commission) denying her workers' compensation claim.
Beginning in 1992, plaintiff worked on and off for Allen
Canning Company (defendant) for approximately six years as a
permanent seasonal production associate. Each year, plaintiff
worked from March to either October or November and did not work
again until the following year. Plaintiff was responsible for
running a seamer, which included taking the lids from cans andstacking them on top of three different machines. Plaintiff also
inspected goods on the product line. Mr. Robert Caldwell testified
for defendant that the weight of the lids plaintiff handled before
being transferred to the inspection line weighed 2.5 to 2.8 pounds.
He also stated there was very little repetition in loading the
sleeves onto the machine. Plaintiff complained that she had
developed carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) on 2 November 1998.
Plaintiff began seeing Dr. Eddie Powell (Dr. Powell) on 2
February 1999. Dr. Powell testified that plaintiff revealed very
little of her job duties and that on five separate visits, he
unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a better description of
plaintiff's job duties. At the time of his deposition, Dr. Powell
continued to be unaware of plaintiff's job duties.
Dr. Powell diagnosed plaintiff with severe shoulder bursitis
and held plaintiff out of work from 2 February 1999 through 2 March
1999. On 5 March 1999, Dr. Powell completed a Request for
Disability Benefits Form noting that plaintiff was taken out of
work for reasons unrelated to an alleged injury or sickness arising
out of her employment. On 6 March 1999, plaintiff filed a claim
for short-term disability, listing her condition as bursitis.
Plaintiff received short-term disability benefits from 2 February
1999 through 16 August 1999. At this time, plaintiff was working
solely on the inspection line due to chest pains.
Dr. Powell continued to treat plaintiff during this time and
further diagnosed her as having peripheral neuropathy with left CTS
and arm neuropathy with left CTS. Upon the expiration of her
short-term disability benefits, plaintiff filed her workers'compensation claim. Dr. Powell authorized plaintiff to be out of
work from 15 August 1999 through 22 September 1999. On 21
September 1999, plaintiff returned to Dr. Powell. Dr. Powell's
diagnosis changed to peripheral neuropathy and second trimester
pregnancy with CTS. Plaintiff was held out of work from 21
September 1999 through 2 November 1999. As of 2 November,
plaintiff's condition remained unchanged and she was authorized to
be out of work until 29 May 2000. In March 2000, plaintiff gave
birth to her child. On 23 October 2000, Dr. Powell found plaintiff
to be fully recovered from all conditions.
Deputy Commissioner Edward Garner, Jr., heard plaintiff's
workers' compensation claim on 25 May 2001. Plaintiff's claims for
workers' compensation benefits were denied and plaintiff appealed
to the Full Commission. The Full Commission upheld the Deputy
Commissioner's denial of plaintiff's claim for workers'
compensation benefits. Plaintiff appeals.
The issues are whether the Full Commission erred in: (1)
concluding that there was no causal relationship between
plaintiff's CTS and her job duties and denying her workers'
compensation benefits and (2) finding that plaintiff's weight and
pregnancy could potentially have caused her CTS.
III. Standard of Review
On appeal, the standard of review of a workers' compensation
case is whether there is any competent evidence in the record to
support the Commission's findings and whether those findings
support the Commission's conclusions of law. Oliver v. Lane Co.,143 N.C. App. 167, 170, 544 S.E.2d 606, 608 (2001). This Court's
'duty goes no further than to determine whether the record
contains any evidence tending to support the finding.' Adams v.
AVX Corp., 349 N.C. 676, 681, 509 S.E.2d 411, 414 (1998) (quoting
Anderson v. Lincoln Constr. Co., 265 N.C. 431, 434, 144 S.E.2d 272,
274 (1965)), rehr'g denied, 350 N.C. 108, 532 S.E.2d 522 (1999).
The Commission's findings of fact are conclusive on appeal
when they are supported by competent evidence, even when there is
evidence to support contrary findings. Pittman v. International
Paper Co., 132 N.C. App. 151, 156, 510 S.E.2d 705, 709, aff'd, 351
N.C. 42, 519 S.E.2d 524 (1999). [T]he Commission is the sole
judge of the credibility of witnesses and may believe all or a part
or none of any witness's testimony . . . . Harrell v. Stevens &
Co., 45 N.C. App. 197, 205, 262 S.E.2d 830, 835 (citation omitted),
disc. rev. denied, 300 N.C. 196, 269 S.E.2d 623 (1980).
IV. Causal Relationship Between Injuries and Job Duties
Plaintiff contends that the Commission's findings of fact and
conclusion of law that her condition was not related to her
employment are not supported by competent evidence. We disagree.
To establish a right to workers' compensation benefits under
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 97-53(13) (2003), plaintiff must prove the
(1) characteristic of persons engaged in the
particular trade or occupation in which the
claimant is engaged; (2) not an ordinary
disease of life to which the public generally
is equally exposed with those engaged in that
particular trade or occupation; and (3) there
must be a causal connection between the
disease and the claimant's employment.
Rutledge v. Tultex Corp., 308 N.C. 85, 93, 301 S.E.2d 359, 365(1983) (citations omitted). The plaintiff has the burden of
proving all three elements by the greater weight of or a
preponderance of the evidence. Phillips v. U.S. Air, Inc., 120
N.C. App. 538, 541-542, 463 S.E.2d 259, 261 (1995), aff'd, 343 N.C.
302, 469 S.E.2d 552 (1996).
In Holley v. ACTS, Inc., plaintiff was diagnosed with deep
vein thrombrosis (DVT). 357 N.C. 228, 229, 581 S.E.2d 750, 751
(2003). Plaintiff's doctors were unable to express an opinion to
reasonable degree of medical certainty whether plaintiff's injuries
were causally related to her employment. Id. at 233, 581 S.E.2d at
753. One doctor testified that it was a low possibility that the
plaintiff's condition was caused by her accident at work. Id.
Another doctor testified, I don't really know what caused the
DVT. Id. at 233, 581 S.E.2d at 753-754.
Our Supreme Court held that the doctors' testimony was
insufficient to show a causal relationship and stated, [i]n cases
involving 'complicated medical questions far removed from the
ordinary experience and knowledge of laymen, only an expert can
give competent opinion evidence as to the cause of the injury.'
Id. at 232, 581 S.E.2d at 753 (quoting Click v. Pilot Freight
Carriers, Inc., 300 N.C. 164, 167, 265 S.E.2d 389, 391 (1980)).
'[W]hen such expert opinion testimony is based merely upon
speculation and conjecture, . . . it is not sufficiently reliable
to qualify as competent evidence on issues of medical causation.'
Id. (quoting Young v. Hickory Bus. Furn., 353 N.C. 227, 230, 538
S.E.2d 912, 915 (2000)).
'The evidence must be such as to take the case out of therealm of conjecture and remote possibility, that is, there must be
sufficient competent evidence tending to show a proximate causal
relation.' Id. (quoting Gilmore v. Hoke Cty. Bd. of Educ., 222
N.C. 358, 365, 23 S.E.2d 292, 296 (1942)). Although expert
testimony as to the possible cause of a medical condition is
admissible if helpful to the jury, it is insufficient to prove
causation, particularly 'when there is additional evidence or
testimony showing the expert's opinion to be a guess or mere
speculation.' Id. at 233, 581 S.E.2d at 753 (citation omitted)
(quoting Young, 353 N.C. at 233, 538 S.E.2d at 916).
When asked whether plaintiff's CTS was related to her
employment, Dr. Powell testified, [t]here's a probability that her
carpal tunnel syndrome come [sic] from her occupation . . . I
really don't know. (emphasis supplied). Dr. Powell stated that
the main reason he could not opine to a reasonable degree of
medical certainty was due to plaintiff's failure to provide him
with sufficient information of her job duties. When asked whether
plaintiff could have developed her condition from her employment,
Dr. Powell further stated,
I -- I don't like to look back in retrospect
and try to change an answer that I didn't have
that history when it was -- when it was
presented to me. That's unfair to the
defendant. That's unfair to the patient. And
furthermore, it's unfair to the education
that's been bestowed upon me by God and man
about medicine. If that patient can't give me
a reliable history, that is the patient's
fault. It's not the company's fault. It's
not the doctor's fault.
Based on this testimony, the Commission concluded that plaintiff
failed to prove by the greater weight of the evidence that hercondition was linked to her employment, and that plaintiff has
not shown enough evidence through testimony or medical evidence to
overcome her burden of proving a link between her job duties and
The testimony of Dr. Powell only established a possibility
that plaintiff's injuries were causally related to her employment.
Doctors are trained not to rule out medical possibilities no
matter how remote; however, mere possibility has never been legally
competent to prove causation. Id. at 234, 581 S.E.2d at 754; see
also Young, 353 N.C. at 233, 538 S.E.2d at 916. The entirety of
causation evidence before the Commission failed to meet the
standard of a reasonable degree of medical certainty that is
necessary to establish a causal link between plaintiff's injuries
and her employment. Id. The Full Commission properly denied
plaintiff's workers' compensation benefits. Plaintiff's assignment
of error is overruled. In light of our holding, we do not address
plaintiff's second assignment of error.
The Commission's findings of fact and conclusions of law
concerning a causal relationship between plaintiff's injuries and
her employment are supported by competent evidence. The opinion
and award of the Commission is affirmed.
Judges WYNN and HUNTER concur.
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