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Reynolds v. Wilcox Truck Line, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, First Division

September 17, 2019



          Before: Victor C. Howard, Presiding Judge, Lisa White Hardwick and Gary D. Witt, Judges


         Wilcox Truck Line, Inc. and its insurer Accident Fund Insurance Company of America ("collectively, Employer") appeal the decision of the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission ("Commission") awarding workers' compensation benefits to employee Ronald Reynolds. Employer raises two points on appeal: 1) the Commission's award was erroneous because there was insufficient evidence that Reynolds was permanently and totally disabled as a result of his injury; and 2) the Commission erred in awarding Reynolds's wife ("Wife") compensation for past nursing services because she provided services that would typically be provided by a spouse. For reasons explained herein, we find no error and affirm.

         Factual and Procedural History[1]

         On July 17, 2007, Reynolds was driving his regular route between Tennessee and Iowa as an over-the-road trucker for Wilcox Truck Line, Inc. As he traveled through a construction area on Interstate 35, Reynolds's tractor-trailer made contact with a concrete barrier before crossing over and striking a guardrail and a road sign on the other side of the road. The tractor-trailer overturned and slid against the road on its passenger side until coming to a rest in the middle of the roadway. Reynolds kicked out the windshield to escape the wreckage, as the tractor-trailer caught fire and burned. Reynolds was transported to a hospital but was released later that day with directions to see a local doctor after medical providers determined that, in his extremely agitated state, he was a greater danger to himself within the hospital than at home.

         Immediately after Reynolds returned home, he experienced sleep disturbances which Wife described as "[e]very time he closed his eyes to [sleep] he would wake up yelling." Employer directed Reynolds to seek treatment at the local urgent care clinic. Wife conscripted the assistance of her sons to get Reynolds into the family truck because he refused to enter a moving vehicle. After a few examinations by urgent care providers, Reynolds was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and referred to licensed clinical social worker Anne Heselton for further consultation. Heselton subsequently concluded that Reynolds met the diagnosis criteria for acute stress disorder because:

he has been exposed to a traumatic event in which he experienced injury and a threat to his physical integrity and his response involved intense fear, helplessness, and horror; he has had some dissociative symptoms; he is persistently reexperiencing the trauma through thoughts and dreams and is distressed when exposed to reminders of the traumatic event; he is avoiding stimuli that arouse recollections of the trauma; he has marked symptoms of anxiety and increased arousal (difficulty sleeping, irritability); the symptoms are causing clinically significant distress; the symptoms have lasted for 9 days and occurred within 4 weeks of the traumatic event; and the symptoms are not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance, a general medical condition, Brief Psychotic Disorder, or another Axis I or Axis II disorder.

         In September 2007, Dr. Elizabeth Bhargava became Reynolds's treating psychiatrist. Upon diagnosing Reynolds with PTSD, she increased his Prozac dosage and prescribed another medication to assist with his continued sleep disturbances. She referred him to a neuropsychologist, Dr. Steven Akeson for further therapy in October 2007. Dr. Akeson noted improvement after a few sessions and reported Reynolds was "very motivated to return to work[, ]" and that his prognosis was excellent despite recent episodes of depression and anxiety. Dr. Bhargava subsequently cleared Reynolds for a trial period of over-the-road truck driving as long as he carefully monitored the effects of his prescribed sleep aid and kept his driving to the daylight hours. In therapy progress notes, Dr. Akeson outlined a potential return plan that would start with co-driver trips to Memphis and progress to occasional, unassisted trips before a full return to duty at some point in May 2008.

         Upon his return to work, Reynolds reported that his confidence increased with each trip made with a co-driver. He noted some symptoms of anxiety when crossing through construction zones but was able to manage the symptoms. Reynolds eventually began driving solo trips to Memphis, which continued until April 27, 2008. On that day, Reynolds called his Wife after witnessing a "bad accident" on the road. Reynolds said he was sorry that he didn't stop but the accident involved a family and he just "had to get on around it[.]" He asked Wife to pick him up at his truck drop-off location at 5:00 p.m.

         Wife was unable to get Reynolds to exit the truck or unlock the cab door when he arrived at the drop-off location. She went to the passenger side and eventually convinced Reynolds to unlock the driver's side door. However, Reynolds refused to get out of the truck and had to be physically removed by Wife with the assistance of another trucker. Reynolds has not returned to work since this incident.

         On November 8, 2008, Dr. Dale Halfaker, a neuropsychologist, conducted an evaluation of Reynolds based on DAPS[2] testing and a review of his medical records. Dr. Halfaker diagnosed Reynolds with PTSD and rated its effect as a permanent 10% partial disability. Further, Dr. Halfaker opined that Reynolds had reached a maximum level of psychological improvement and that he could return to work without psychological restrictions.

         On November 11, 2010, Dr. Stanley Butts evaluated Reynolds at the request of Reynolds's counsel. Dr. Butts diagnosed Reynolds with PTSD and major depressive disorder resulting from the 2007 tractor-trailer accident. He rated Reynolds as permanently and totally disabled, noting specifically that he was unable to engage in meaningful, gainful employment as a result of the PTSD. Dr. Butts recommended continued use of medication and therapy.

         Reynolds also engaged Gary Weimholt, a vocational rehabilitation consultant, to perform a vocational evaluation based upon review of medical records, letters and notes completed by Wife, and deposition testimony. Weimholt opined that Reynolds would not be able to return to employment as a truck driver. Further, Weimholt concluded that no employer would hire Reynolds because of "the mental health problems that he has associated with [PTSD] that have been documented in the file."

         Dr. Jennifer Lynch of the Ferell-Duncan Clinic conducted an Employer-requested mental examination of Reynolds on July 24, 2015. Dr. Lynch's diagnoses were REM sleep behavior disorder, depression, chronic insomnia, and PTSD. Dr. Lynch found no evidence of progressive cognitive decline but recognized that Reynolds was clearly suffering from impaired cognition and symptoms consistent with PTSD and depression. Dr. Lynch observed that previous evaluations had reported a significant decline from prior to the accident. Accordingly, Dr. Lynch recommended continuing the present care plan but suggested a few modifications to Reynolds's medication regimen.

         The Commission heard testimony about Reynolds's declining mental and physical abilities after the accident. Prior to his injury, family members described him as a sharp man who was good with numbers and proficient at maintaining vehicles and other farming implements. Further, he raised over a hundred head of cattle and hogs as well as six horses. Post-injury, he was unable to work as efficiently, needing both constant supervision and far more time to complete even simple activities.

         On March 23, 2011, Reynolds requested nursing services related to his injuries, but Employer refused to provide the services. Wife initially reduced her work hours outside the home to care for Reynolds. Based on Reynolds's declining condition, Wife eventually abandoned her outside employment entirely to care for him. Victoria Powell, a nurse and care consultant, concluded that Reynolds needed sixteen to twenty hours of daily home care for "maintenance, safety, and well-being."

         Reynolds sought workers' compensation for his injuries. Following a final hearing, the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined that, as of November 20, 2014, Reynolds was permanently and totally disabled because of his work-related PTSD and depression. The ALJ denied Reynolds's request for past nursing services performed by Wife, determining that "[Wife] does not provide constant care for [Reynolds]," and that "the services she provides to [Reynolds] are primarily services ordinarily provided by a wife to a husband." Both parties requested the Commission to review the award. The Commission subsequently affirmed the finding of permanent and total disability, but partially reversed the ALJ's decision and awarded Reynolds compensation for Wife's past nursing services. Employer appeals.

         Standard ...

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