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Clark v. Dairy Farmers of America

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, First Division

January 25, 2018

RHONDA CLARK, Claimant-Respondent,


          MARY W. SHEFFIELD, P.J.


         This appeal involves a workers' compensation claim filed by Rhonda Clark ("Claimant") against Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. ("Employer"). The Labor and Industrial Relations Commission ("the Commission") awarded compensation, and Employer appeals. Employer contends that the Commission erroneously applied the term "accident" as it appears under sections 287.020[1] and 287.120 of The Workers' Compensation Law in determining Claimant suffered a compensable injury by accident. Within the same point on appeal, Employer additionally asserts that the Commission erred under section 287.495.1 because the facts found do not support the award. We disagree with the arguments Employer raises and affirm the award of the Commission.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Claimant began work in cheese production for Employer in May 2011. The next month, she suffered a fractured rib while performing her work duties. Claimant's job involved "turning down the ends" of a cheese mixture in large metal vats. Each vat "is like a huge table" with a mixer in the top. While the mixture cured, Claimant had to keep it from turning "hard, like a block of cheese, " at the edges of the vats. That required using a shovel to bring in "the ends so that the mixer part could get all parts of the cheese." Claimant did that job eight hours a day, five days a week.

         While shoveling the cheese mixture during a normal workday, Claimant felt a painful pop in the right side of her ribcage and stopped working because she was unable to lift her arm. The following day, Claimant visited the emergency room and diagnostic testing revealed not only a fractured rib but also a lytic lesion[2] on the bone "pretty close" to the spot where the fracture occurred. Further tests revealed that the lesion was Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis ("LCH"), a rare malignancy which can weaken a bone "to the point that it can fail under a force that is less than normal." Claimant subsequently underwent radiation therapy, improved, and is no longer undergoing treatment.

         Claimant reported her injury to the Division of Workers' Compensation. In the hearing, the administrative law judge ("ALJ") reviewed evidence regarding medical causation of the fracture. Claimant's doctor, Dr. Mullins, expressed the opinion that the force of Claimant's work was the prevailing cause of the fracture. He opined that "the type of work she did, utilizing a shovel, . . . [was] sufficient enough to cause a rib fracture."[3]

         The ALJ denied compensation. Claimant appealed, and after review, the Commission reversed the ALJ's decision. The Commission concluded that Claimant "suffered a compensable injury by accident" and concluded Employer was responsible for past medical expenses and permanent partial disability benefits.

         Specifically, the Commission held that Claimant satisfied each of the statutory criteria for an accident as set forth under Chapter 287, that the accident was the prevailing factor causing Claimant's injury, and that the injury arose out of and in the course of Claimant's employment. In determining whether Claimant suffered an accident for purposes of the statute, the Commission found the testimony of Dr. Mullins to be most persuasive. This appeal followed.

         Standard of Review

         "In reviewing a workers' compensation final award, 'we review the findings and award of the Commission rather than those of the ALJ.'" Pruett v. Federal Mogul Corp., 365 S.W.3d 296, 303 (Mo. App. S.D. 2012) (quoting Birdsong v. Waste Mgmt., 147 S.W.3d 132, 137 (Mo. App. S.D. 2004)). This Court reviews decisions by the Commission to ensure they are "supported by competent and substantial evidence." Mo. Const. art. V, § 18 quoted in White v. ConAgra Packaged Foods, LLC, No. SC 96041, 2017 WL 6460352, at *2 (Mo. banc Dec. 19, 2017). Under section 287.495.1, the Commission's decision will only be disturbed if: (1) the Commission acted without or in excess of its powers; (2) the award was procured by fraud; (3) the facts found by the Commission do not support the award; or (4) there was not sufficient competent evidence in the record to warrant the making of the award. White, 2017 WL 6460352, at *2.

         "[W]e defer to the Commission on issues involving the credibility of witnesses and the weight to be given to their testimony." Pruett, 365 S.W.3d at 304 (quoting Pavia v. Smitty's Supermkt., 118 S.W.3d 228, 234 (Mo. App. S.D. 2003)). In contrast, "[d]ecisions involving statutory interpretation . . . are reviewed de novo." White, 2017 WL 6460352, at *2. The determination of whether an incident was a compensable accident under the Workers' Compensation Law is a ...

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