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DECISION AND ORDER DENYING MOTION
FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Summary: Claimant in 1998 was determined to have an Occupational disease involving throat and airway problems. Insurance Company of North America (ICNA) was the insurer and did not contest the determination. Four years later claimant was hospitalized for, among other things, throat and respiratory problems. ICNA, however, denied liability, indicating the claimant's illness had been aggravated by subsequent work for the same employer, which it no longer insured, hence the subsequent insurer (Valor) should be liable. Claimant then filed a claim with Valor, which denied liability. He then petitioned the Court, joining both insurers. Now he moves for summary judgment holding ICNA liable. ICNA responds that 1) the physician diagnosing the occupational disease in 1998 had incomplete information and was mistaken; 2) the claimant's present condition is unrelated to his 1998 condition; and/or 3) Valor should be liable since his condition worsened on its watch.
Held: Valor is liable only if the claimant is suffering from a new and different disease. ICNA continues to be liable for claimant's 1998 condition and any progression of and sequella to that condition. It is too late for it to challenge the OD determination. As to causation, a review of medical records indicate there is a factual dispute as to whether claimant's current medical problems are related to his 1998 disease, hence, summary judgment is inappropriate.
¶1 The matter before the Court is claimant's motion for partial summary judgment. Claimant asks the Court to find that Insurance Company of North America (ICNA), one of two respondent insurers in this case, is liable for claimant's current medical problems which are primarily respiratory in nature.
¶2 During 1997 and 1998, claimant was employed as a janitor at two businesses - 4B's Crossroads and Truckers Express, Inc. The two employers were affiliated and, during 1997, 1998, and parts of 1999, were both insured by ICNA, which at that time was known as Cigna but hereinafter referred to as ICNA. (Petitioner's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts, ¶ 1, Ex. A; ICNA's Response to Petition, ¶ IF.) ICNA ceased providing coverage for 4B's Crossroads on July 1, 1999, and for Truckers Express, Inc. on August 1, 1999. (ICNA's Response to Petition, ¶ IF.)
¶3 During 1997 the claimant developed hoarseness and loss of voice. (Ex. A and B to respondent's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts.) On March 27, 1998, a representative of both employers wrote to ICNA reporting the claim and enclosing a First Report listing Truckers Express, Inc. as the employer. (Petitioner's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts, ¶ 5, Exs. A, B.) The letter stated it would be "acceptable for this occupational disease to be handled through the Truckers Express account" and noted the employer did not question the claim. (Id., ¶ 5, 6, Ex. A, B.)
¶4 On June 1, 1998, ICNA denied the claim. It informed claimant that "the information we have received indicates that your condition cannot be directly related to your occupation." (Petitioner's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts, ¶ 9, Ex. F.) Nonetheless, the insurer referred the claim for evaluation by the statutory Occupational Disease Panel. (Id.)
¶5 On August 4, 1998, Dr. Dana Headapohl performed an Independent Medical Examination on referral from the Department of Labor and Industry ("Department"). (Petitioner's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts, ¶ 11; ICNA's Opposition to Partial Summary Judgment, ¶ 1, Ex. 1.) She concluded:
(Ex. 1 to ICNA's Opposition to Partial Summary Judgment.) I note here that the occupationally related symptoms addressed by Dr. Headapohl were "upper airway irritation, nasal and sinus congestion and dysphonia," and nothing more. "Dysphonia" is "defective use of voice." (Encyclopedia Britannica Dictionary 2003, Ultimate Reference Suite DVD.)
¶6 Based on Dr. Headapohl's report, on September 9, 1998, the Department issued an Order of Determination concluding that "claimant is suffering from an occupational disease and is entitled to benefits under the Occupational Disease Act." (Petitioner's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts, ¶ 11, Ex. G.) The Department determined that claimant was entitled to fifty percent of his "total disability benefits if they [sic] suffer a total wage loss as a result of the occupational disease" and also entitled to "medical and hospital expenses directly related to their [sic] occupational disease." (Id.; emphasis added.)
¶7 ICNA did not appeal the Department's Order of Determination and paid various benefits relating to claimant's condition. (Petitioner's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts, ¶ 12.)
¶8 In 2002, claimant submitted bills relating to a hospitalization during May 2002. The hospitalization was related at least in part to a respiratory illness. (Petitioner's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts, ¶ 13, 14; ICNA's Opposition to Partial Summary Judgment, ¶ 31.) Claimant demanded ICNA pay for the hospitalization.
¶9 ICNA denied liability for the 2002 hospitalization based on its determination that the hospitalization was "unrelated to your Occupational Disease of September of 1997." (Petitioner's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts, ¶ 14, Ex. H.) Apparently, its adjuster believed claimant's employment subsequent to 1997 and 1998 aggravated his condition and relieved ICNA of further liability. At least the adjuster wrote:
¶10 During May 2002, claimant was working for the same employer as in 1997 and 1998, however, by that time the employer was insured by Valor Insurance Company (Valor), which is also a respondent in this action. A claim for benefits was submitted to Valor; it has denied liability. (Petition for Hearing, ¶ 5, 12; Valor's Response to Petition, Uncontested Facts.) The pending summary judgment motion does not ask for relief against Valor and it has not participated in the briefing.
I. The Parties' Contentions
¶11 Claimant asks the Court to broadly find that ICNA is "liable for the respiratory problems which are the subject of this action." (Petitioner's Brief in Support of Motion for Partial Summary Judgment at 2; Petitioner's Statement of Uncontroverted Facts, ¶ 15, 16.) He alleges he has not worked "since July 2002 as a direct result of his condition and he has been awarded Social Security Disability benefits." (Petition for Hearing, ¶ 10.)
¶12 In moving for summary judgment, claimant relies on section 39-72-303, (2), MCA (1997), which provides:
He argues that since his condition was diagnosed during ICNA's coverage, ICNA remains liable, under section 39-72-303(2), MCA (1997), for his medical treatment and disability benefits. He also argues that by failing to appeal the Department of Labor's September 9, 1998 Order of Determination, ICNA "accepted" his occupational disease claim and, under Bouldin v. Liberty, WCC No. 9604-7536 (1996), cannot now challenge causation or shift liability to Valor.
¶13 In opposition, ICNA contends that Dr. Headapohl's occupational disease determination in 1998 was flawed because she did not have a complete medical history of the claimant. It further argues that claimant's present medical condition and alleged disability are not related to any occupational disease for which it is liable. Finally, in the alternative, it argues that if the claimant's medical condition is related to an occupational disease then Valor is liable for his condition since his condition materially worsened during its coverage of his employer.
¶14 Summary judgment is particularly disfavored in this Court, Rule 24.5.329(b), especially in view of the fact that trials are conducted on an expedited basis. Moreover, "[s]ummary judgment is an extreme remedy which should not be a substitute for a trial on the merits if a material factual controversy exists." Oens v. Employee Benefits Ins. Co., 2003 MTWCC 40, ¶ 5. "All reasonable inferences which can be drawn from the evidence presented should be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party." Id.; Delaware v. K-Decorators, Inc., 1999 MT 13, ¶ 55, 293 Mont. 97, 973 P.2d 818.
¶15 In cases involving medical issues, summary judgment is especially inappropriate where the motion is based on medical records and those records provide conflicting opinions concerning medical matters at issue in the case or the Court would be required to draw inferences that are better addressed by direct medical testimony and opinion. See Oens, supra. On the other hand, where legal issues are interlaced with the medical issues, it is appropriate for the Court to resolve those legal issues which can be resolved without determining factual issues.
¶16 The Department issued its Order of Determination on September 9, 1998. Based on Dr. Headapohl's report, the Order determined that claimant suffered from an occupational disease. Under Section 39-72-611, MCA (1997)(2), which governed occupational disease claims during the latter half of 1997 and throughout 1998, ICNA was required to request a hearing if it contested the determination. The section provided:
The Order specifically notified ICNA of its right to a hearing and the requirement that it file a request for hearing within twenty days. (Ex. G to Statement of Uncontroverted Facts.) ICNA did not appeal the Order (Statement of Uncontroverted Facts, ¶ 12), thus the Order became final. It is far too late to now appeal or contest the Department's determination, thus ICNA's lengthy assertion that Dr. Headapohl's opinions were based on incomplete or incorrect medical history is unavailing. Those arguments should have been made in a timely appeal of the Department's Order. In sum, unless otherwise relieved of liability for reasons discussed below, ICNA is liable for the conditions identified as occupational diseases by Dr. Headapohl, as well as for any progression of those conditions, for any sequellae from those conditions, and for other medical conditions resulting from the conditions.
¶17 ICNA may be relieved of liability if the claimant's occupational disease was materially and permanently aggravated by a subsequent industrial injury. ICNA, however, has not identified any new injury which might relieve it of liability.
¶18 ICNA does contend that if the claimant's condition is part of his original occupational disease, then his subsequent exposures at work "materially substantially, and permanently aggravated" his condition. (Insurance Company of North America's Brief in Opposition to Partial Summary Judgment at 13-14.) On this basis, ICNA would shift any liability to Valor, which insured claimant's employer in 2002, when claimant experienced significant respiratory and other problems.
¶19 To shift liability to Valor, however, ICNA must demonstrate that claimant suffered a new and different occupational disease while Valor was at risk. It is not enough that the occupational disease for which ICNA is otherwise liable worsened during Valor's watch, or even that his work under Valor's watch materially aggravated his underlying disease. I so held in Abfalder v. Travelers Indemnity Company of Illinois, 2002 MTWCC 99, wherein I said:
2002 MTWCC 99 at ¶ 53. On appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed my reasoning and held that where the claimant's employer has two or more insurers during the employment, "liability rests with the insurer providing coverage at the earlier of the time the occupational disease was first diagnosed or the time the employee knew or should have known that the condition was the result of an occupational disease." In re: Abfalder, 2003 MT 180, ¶ 14. Here, not only was the disease diagnosed during ICNA's watch but ICNA was determined liable for the disease.
¶20 However, an insurer's liability only extends to conditions and disability arising as a result of the occupational disease. See Anderson v. Zurich American Ins. Co., 2003 MTWCC 45, ¶ 37; Markovich v. Helmsman Management Services, 2003 MTWCC 4, Hand v. Royal Ins. Company of America, 2002 MTWCC 65, ¶ 32. "Causation is an essential element to benefit entitlement." Hash v. Montana Silversmith, 256 Mont. 252, 257, 846 P.2d 981, 983 (1993); and see Caekaert v. State Compensation Mut. Ins. Fund, 268 Mont. 105, 112, 885 P.2d 495, 499 (1994). Hence, ICNA can avoid liability if it can show that claimant is suffering from a condition unrelated to the original condition diagnosed by Dr. Headapohl, i.e, if it can show that claimant's condition from 2002 and onward is unrelated to the condition diagnosed in 1998 as an occupational disease.
¶21 Bouldin v. Liberty, WCC No. 9604-7536 (1996), cited by the claimant as authority for holding ICNA liable without a factual inquiry into causation is distinguishable. There, "counsel for Liberty conceded during oral argument that [claimant's] current condition is the same condition for which it initially accepted liability. It is not alleging that she is now suffering from some different, unrelated condition." Here, ICNA argues, among other things, that claimant's present condition is not the same condition for which it was determined liable in 1998. The Court is aware that the claimant will produce medical evidence that the present condition is the same condition, but the issue on summary judgment is whether he has demonstrated an uncontroverted connection between claimant's more recent condition and the 1998 condition for which ICNA is liable.
¶22 After reviewing the medical records submitted in connection with the motion for summary judgment, I cannot find a causal connection on an undisputed basis. While claimant's Reply Brief attempts to portray the evidence as so clear as to establish liability as a matter of law, I am not persuaded. A report from a Pulmonology Consultation in the Community Medical Center on May 30, 2002, indicates claimant was "wheezing" and diagnosed bronchitis, as well as hypothyroidism and tremor. (ICNA's Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment, Ex. 32.) The three conditions listed in the doctor's diagnosis were not part of Dr. Headapohl's occupational disease diagnosis, and their relationship to the conditions she diagnosed in 1998, is not patently clear.
¶23 Other records suggest that some of the claimant's current medical problems may result from factors other than the claimant's industrial exposure. For instance, some records suggest that some of the claimant's difficulties may be due to anxiety and depression. (ICNA's Opposition to Partial Summary Judgment, ¶ 25-30; Ex. 25.)
¶24 The Court is faced with potentially complex questions of causation turning on the facts of the particular case. See generally, Liberty Mutual Fire Ins. Co. v. Griner, 2001 MTWCC 58; Liberty Northwest Ins. Corp. v. State Compensation Ins. Fund, 2001 MTWCC 56. While claimant may ultimately prevail at trial, this case is not an appropriate one for summary judgment.
¶25 The motion for partial summary judgment is denied.
c: Mr. Rex Palmer - U.S. Mail
1. "Atopic" is defined as prone to allergies or characterized by allergy. See Medical Dictionary at www.medicinenet.com.
2. The 1997 version of the Occupational Disease Act was in effect at the time the claimant's disease arose and his claim was filed and processed. Hence, procedural provisions are controlling with respect to the administrative proceedings which resulted in the Department's Order.
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