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Valdez v. Labor Commission and Unified Police Department

Court of Appeals of Utah

April 6, 2017

Antonio O. Valdez, Petitioner,
Labor Commission and Unified Police Department, Respondents.

         Original Proceeding in this Court

          Ronald Ball, Virginius Dabney, and Stony Olsen, Attorneys for Petitioner

          Camille N. Johnson, Kenneth L. Reich, Maralyn M. English, and Harry H. Souvall, Attorneys for Respondents Judge David N. Mortensen authored this Opinion, in which Judges J. Frederic Voros Jr. and Kate A. Toomey concurred.


          MORTENSEN, Judge

         ¶1 Antonio O. Valdez, a police officer, experienced back pain after his patrol car came to an abrupt stop during an accident. The Labor Commission's Appeals Board denied him permanent total disability benefits, and Valdez now seeks judicial review of the denial. We decline to disturb that order.


         ¶2 Valdez worked as a police officer for the Unified Police Department. In June 2010, as he was working a graveyard shift, a car and a motorcycle raced past his patrol car. Intending to pull over one or both of the drivers for speeding, Valdez pulled out of the parking lot where he had been finishing a report. Around the same time, the speeding car turned in front of the speeding motorcycle, and the motorcycle hit the car. Part of the motorcycle, presumably dislodged during the collision, lay in the street. Valdez was traveling seventy miles per hour in pursuit of the vehicles when he ran into the dislodged motorcycle part, and his vehicle came to an abrupt stop.

         ¶3 Valdez reported feeling a "crack" in his neck upon impact. He also felt pain in his lower back as he exited his vehicle. Valdez's supervisor sent him home early because of his neck and back pain, and when he woke up "later that day, he had a very difficult time getting out of bed because his back was so stiff."

         ¶4 Over the next two years, Valdez received treatment from several doctors for back pain he attributed to the accident. During the course of treatment, in December 2011, one doctor concluded that Valdez "suffered from pre-existing diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH) of the thoracic spine, multilevel degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine and cervical degenerative changes." His physical difficulties were exacerbated when, in May 2012, he hit his head against a vehicle door during "PIT maneuver"[1] training. Then, in August 2012, Valdez "suffered a back strain at work when he had hand to hand contact with a suspect during apprehension."

         ¶5 Ultimately, Valdez's doctors restricted his work activities. Because Valdez suffers from DISH, they concluded it would not be "safe [for] him to be exposed to potentially violent encounters." He was further limited from lifting more than ten pounds, "stooping, pushing, pulling or prolonged standing or sitting." Given the practical implications of these restrictions on the career of a police officer, Valdez filed for workers' compensation benefits in December 2012. He requested medical expenses, medical care, travel expenses, temporary total disability compensation, and, eventually, permanent total disability benefits. The Unified Police Department denied that the accident was the legal or medical cause of Valdez's current condition.

         ¶6 The Utah Labor Commission (the Commission) submitted the medical issues to an independent medical panel, asking it "to conduct an impartial evaluation of the medical aspects of this case." Specifically, the Commission asked the medical panel: (1) whether there was "a medically demonstrable causal connection between" the accident and Valdez's then-current back problems; (2) "the date when, if ever, [Valdez's] medical problems caused by [the accident] stabilized"; (3) what "medical/functional restrictions, if any, from all conditions, whether industrial or non-industrially caused" Valdez suffered; and (4) what "medical/functional restrictions, if any, as the result only of [the accident]" Valdez suffered.

         ¶7 The medical panel determined that the accident aggravated Valdez's preexisting DISH and degenerative joint disease of the spine. It also concluded that all medical problems related to the accident had stabilized by November 2011. The more recent problems, the panel concluded, were attributable to "the ongoing progression of his pre-existing conditions, " and it was this progression that "limited his ability to continue to work as a police officer." The medical panel acknowledged that Valdez "should not be exposed to violent encounters, manual physical training, or heavy lifting, twisting, prolonged standing, which will aggravate DISH. In effect, [Valdez] is limited to sedentary work." But in response to the Commission's final question regarding what medical or functional restrictions Valdez suffered as a result of the accident, the medical panel answered, "None."

         ¶8 The Commission issued its findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order in December 2014. Relying on the medical panel's report, which the Commission determined was "supported by a preponderance of the evidence, " the Commission concluded that Valdez's "current physical limitations are related to [Valdez's] pre-existing DISH condition, not the industrial accident." Thus, because the accident did not cause Valdez's "inability to perform former work, " the Commission denied Valdez's claim for permanent total disability compensation.[2]

         ¶9 Valdez appealed the Commission's decision to the Commission's Appeals Board. The Appeals Board adopted the findings of fact and conclusions of law that the Commission had set forth and affirmed the ...

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