A-1 Septic Tank Services LLC and Auto Owners Insurance Company, Petitioners,
Kris Messersmith, Respondent.
Original Proceeding in this Court
R. Sumsion and Cody G. Kesler, Attorneys for Petitioners
B. Egan, Attorney for Respondent
Michele M. Christiansen Forster authored this Opinion, in
which Judges Jill M. Pohlman and Diana Hagen concurred.
CHRISTIANSEN FORSTER, JUDGE.
An administrative law judge (ALJ) dismissed with prejudice a
request for a hearing on Kris Messersmith's claim for
work-related injury and disability benefits following a work
accident. Messersmith appealed to the Utah Labor Commission
(Commission), and the Commission modified part of the
ALJ's decision: the Commission changed the dismissal to
one without prejudice, thereby permitting Messersmith to
refile his claim. A-1 Septic Tank Services LLC and Auto
Owners Insurance Company (collectively, A-1) seek judicial
review. Because the Commission effectively eliminated the
ALJ's decision on the merits, we set aside the
Commission's decision and reinstate the ALJ's
disposition of the matter.
A-1 hired Messersmith in 2014 to work as a truck driver,
requiring that he clean septic tanks and storm drains as part
of his position. In a non-work-related accident sustained on
December 25, 2015, Messersmith slipped and landed on his
buttocks and was diagnosed as suffering from an "acute
right buttock contusion." He obtained a magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) scan that showed he suffered from
"early degeneration" and a disc protrusion in the
lower back between the last lumbar vertebra and the first
sacral segment of the vertebral column (L5-S1).
Shortly thereafter, Messersmith was diagnosed with a
"subacute lumbar contusion," and a physician
assistant noted that two of Messersmith's lower vertebrae
needed fusion. During a different exam, Messersmith reported
to a family nurse practitioner (FNP) that he was in "the
worst pain he has ever experienced." Despite the pain,
Messersmith took no time off work and continued performing
his normal work duties.
On May 25, 2016, while working and cleaning storm drains,
Messersmith pulled on a metal grate weighing "a few
hundred pounds," and he felt a "pop" in his
low back. He obtained a second MRI on May 31, 2016, which
showed a "relatively large" central disc herniation
at L5-S1. During an exam, the physician (Doctor 1) noted that
Messersmith "was getting by with the pain until [May 25,
2016, ] when he reinjured it pulling a storm drain."
Doctor 1 performed surgery on August 5, 2016, including
discectomy, posterior lumbar fusion, and transforaminal
lumbar interbody fusion. Following surgery, Messersmith had
several post-operative outpatient medical visits.
In 2016, Messersmith submitted an application for hearing
with the Commission and requested medical benefits, temporary
total disability benefits, travel reimbursement, and unpaid
interest for the May 25 work-related injury. The Commission
processed his application and ordered A-1 to respond to the
application for hearing and request for benefits. In its
answer to the application, A-1 denied liability for
Messersmith's claim and asserted that there was no
medical causation between Messersmith's workplace
accident and his claimed injuries.
At A-1's request, Messersmith underwent a separate
medical exam (A-1 Exam) in which another physician (Doctor 2)
concluded that Messersmith's injuries and his need for
surgery were "causally related to the December 25, 2015
injury and not affected" by the May 25 work-related
accident. Doctor 2 further concluded that the May 25 accident
likely did not cause a permanent or temporary aggravation of
Messersmith's preexisting back condition. Relying on the
A-1 Exam report, A-1 continued to deny liability.
The ALJ held a hearing and thereafter determined that there
was no "specific record in which a provider opined that
[Messersmith's] back issue was medically causally related
to the May 25, 2016 industrial accident." Because no
medical opinion was admitted that conflicted with Doctor
2's assessment, the ALJ concluded that there was no
reason to refer the matter to an impartial medical panel and
dismissed Messersmith's claim with prejudice.
Messersmith petitioned the Commission to review the ALJ's
decision, asserting that he had provided sufficient evidence
of medical causation and that the Commission should remand
the matter to the ALJ with instructions to appoint a medical
panel. The Commission agreed with the ALJ that Messersmith
had failed to provide evidence of medical causation linking
the May 25 accident to his injuries that required surgery.
The Commission observed that the medical reports submitted by
Messersmith, including those from Doctor 1, ...