Employee Receives Legal Fees Award After Georgia Employer Unreasonably Defends Against Workers’ Compensation Claim

file4801275587119 morguefile username Alvimann.jpgThe Georgia Court of Appeals has ordered an employer who unreasonably defended a workers’ compensation claim to pay its former employee’s legal fees. In Waters v. PCC Airfoils, LLC, a woman claimed she suffered repetitive injuries to her left hand and wrist as a result of her employment. Following an October 2009 workplace incident, the employee was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. The worker notified her employer about the injury and sought treatment from an approved doctor.

The next month, the physician noted the woman was not required to perform repetitive duties using her left hand. Still, he recommended she undergo surgery on both wrists. The woman elected to undergo the two surgeries at different times so that she retained the use of one hand during her recovery. Her right wrist surgery took place in December 2009. In January 2010, her doctor recommended that the worker pursue formal occupational therapy for both hands as a result of her ongoing pain. At the time, he also stated the woman had limited use of both arms.

In November 2010, the woman apparently suffered another workplace injury. She underwent surgery on her left wrist the following month. About six months after her second surgery, her physician stated it was his opinion that the employee’s left hand injury was not work-related. He added that he did not feel any of her ongoing physical ailments resulted from her October 2009 workplace incident.

Next, the woman filed a workers’ compensation benefits claim for both workplace incidents. Following a hearing, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) denied the woman’s request for benefits for her November 2010 accident. Still, the ALJ awarded the employee workers’ compensation benefits for her left hand injury and any medical bills stemming from the October 2009 incident. In addition, the ALJ issued an attorney’s fees award equal to one-fourth of the worker’s income benefits, due to the employer’s unreasonable defense against the employee’s benefits claim.

After that, the woman’s employer appealed the ALJ’s order to the Workers’ Compensation Board. The Board adopted the ALJ’s decision in its entirety, and the employer sought review by the Superior Court of Coffee County. The Superior Court affirmed the Board’s decision with regard to the woman’s workers’ compensation benefits and medical expenses but overturned her legal fees award due to the conflicting medical testimony offered by her doctor. In response, the worker appealed the court’s decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the court examined whether the employer unreasonably defended against the woman’s claim for workers’ compensation benefits. According to the Court of Appeals, OCGA § 34-9-108(b)(1) allows an ALJ or the Board to assess attorney’s fees against a party that unreasonably prosecutes or defends a Georgia workers’ compensation case. The court next stated it was required to affirm the Board’s decision regarding whether an employer has unreasonably defended a benefits request if there was any evidence offered to support the award.

After examining the ALJ’s statement of facts, the appellate court stated the physician’s testimony was inconsistent. Although the doctor initially recommended surgery on both wrists, he claimed more than 18 months later that the woman’s left wrist harm was not work-related. The court said an employer’s defense may be reasonable in cases where inconsistent medical testimony was offered. Despite this, the court found that the instant case was distinguishable because the employer failed to dispute the physician’s initial medical opinion at the time it was offered.

According to the appeals court, the ALJ clearly made a credibility determination when she weighed the doctor’s initial testimony against his later statements. Since there was evidence to support the ALJ’s holding that the employer’s defense was unreasonable, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the Superior Court’s decision and reinstated the ALJ’s award for legal fees.

If you suffered a disabling repetitive stress injury at work, an experienced Atlanta workers’ compensation lawyer may be able to help you. To discuss your right to recovery with a hardworking Conyers workers’ compensation attorney, do not hesitate to call the Law Offices of Nathaniel F. Hansford at (770) 922-3660 or contact us through our website today.

Additional Resources:

Waters v. PCC Airfoils, LLC, 760 SE 2d 5 – Ga: Court of Appeals 2014

Photo credit: Alvimann, MorgueFile

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