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Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Prichard

Supreme Court of Kentucky

November 2, 2017

TOYOTA MOTOR MANUFACTURING, KENTUCKY, INC. APPELLANT
v.
KATHY PRICHARD; HONORABLE WILLIAM J. RUDLOFF, ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE; AND WORKERS' COMPENSATION BOARD APPELLEES

         ON APPEAL FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2015-CA-001762 WORKERS' COMPENSATION NO. 06-WC-94736.

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Kenneth J. Dietz Emily Walters Lucas 8b Dietz, PLLC

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE KATHY PRICHARD: Roy Church Gray III 331 St. Clair. Street Frankfort, KY 40601

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE HON. WILLIAM J. RUDLOFF, ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE: William J. Rudloff Administrative Law Judge

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE WORKERS' COMPENSATION BOARD: Dwight Taylor Lovan Executive Director Office of Workers' Claims

          OPINION OF THE COURT BY JUSTICE VENTERS

         Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc., appeals from an opinion of the Court of Appeals which affirmed the decisions of the Workers' Compensation Board (Board) and the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) holding that the claimant, Kathy Prichard, was entitled to reopen her workplace injury claim almost seven years after her initial award of workers' compensation benefits, but within four years of a subsequent order granting her additional disability benefits. As grounds for relief Toyota contends that (1) Prichard's motion to reopen was barred by the four-year limitation period contained in KRS 342.125(3); and (2) Prichard failed to demonstrate through objective medical evidence a change in her disability indicating a worsening of her impairment as required for reopening a claim under KRS 342.125(1)(d).

         For the reasons stated below we affirm the opinion of the Court of Appeals.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On March 14, 2007, Prichard filed a claim with the Department of Workers' Claims contending that, on March 16, 2005, she had sustained an injury to her neck while working as an assembly line employee at Toyota's Georgetown factory. As a result of her injury, Prichard was diagnosed with a cervical strain and degenerative disc disease in her neck area. On November 13, 2007, the ALJ approved an award of permanent partial disability benefits based upon a permanent impairment rating of eight percent. Prichard returned to work but left after a few months due to continuing pain resulting from the original injury. In an effort to alleviate Prichard's problem, in August 2008, Dr. James Bean performed surgery to fuse four of Prichard's cervical vertebrae.

         In April 2009, well within the four-year limitation period, Prichard filed a motion to reopen her 2007 award on the basis that her injury and the resulting impairment had worsened. In September 2011, the ALJ determined that Prichard was not totally disabled, but that her permanent partial disability rating had increased from eight percent to twenty-eight percent, based upon testimony indicating that Prichard could still perform sedentary work and that she suffered from non-work-related conditions.

         Prichard continued to suffer pain, headaches, and impairment attributed to her initial work-place injury. After further evaluation, Dr. Bean concluded in April 2014 that Prichard's condition had further deteriorated in that she had "an essentially immobile neck that would be unable to sustain routine neck movements in an employed position for a full day's work." Dr. Bean concluded that Prichard was unable to return to even sedentary work. Dr. Bean imposed additional restrictions on Prichard's physical movements as a result of his revised medical conclusions.

         On August 12, 2014, based upon Dr. Bean's latest evaluation, Prichard moved to reopen the 2011 award. At the hearing, Prichard testified that the pain in her neck had increased and her cervical range of motion had decreased since her first award. She stated that she had last worked in 2008.

         In addition to Prichard's testimony and the record of her extensive medical history, the ALJ considered evidence from Dr. Bean, from Prichard's primary care physician since 1999, Dr. William Childers, and from Toyota's expert medical witness, Dr. Timir Banerjee. Dr. Childers largely concurred with Dr. Bean's determination that Prichard was unable to perform even sedentary work because of her chronic pain and her need for strong pain-relieving medications. In opposition to Prichard's motion, Dr. Banerjee concluded that Prichard's condition had remained unchanged with an impairment rating of eight percent since he first examined her in 2009.

         Oh May 20, 2015, the ALJ entered an opinion and award, concluding that as a result of the further deterioration of Prichard's work-related cervical condition, she was totally disabled. The AU based his decision, in part, upon what he described as the "persuasive, compelling and reliable" medical evidence. The Board and the ...


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