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Murphy v. Westrock Co.

Supreme Court of Montana

March 20, 2018

CARL MURPHY, Petitioner and Appellant,
v.
WESTROCK COMPANY, Respondent and Appellee.

         APPEAL FROM: Montana Workers' Compensation Court, WCC No. 2016-3787 Honorable David M. Sandler, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Rex L. Palmer, Attorneys Inc., P.C.; Missoula, Montana.

          For Appellee: Larry W. Jones, Wills Law Firm, P.C.; Missoula, Montana.

          OPINION

          Jim Rice Justice.

         ¶1 Carl Murphy appeals the order entered by Workers' Compensation Court that granted summary judgment to WestRock Company on Murphy's claims. We reverse and remand for further proceedings, addressing the following:

         Did the Workers' Compensation Court err by holding that a chiropractor may not make a medical determination regarding the claimant's 1991 work-related injury?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶2 In December of 1991, Murphy suffered back, neck, and shoulder injuries while working at the Smurfit-Stone Container mill in Frenchtown, Montana. Smurfit-Stone accepted liability and Murphy treated his injury. The record indicates that Murphy reached maximum medical improvement in 1993 and treated intermittently into 1996. He began treating again in 1998 with Jim Helmer, Doctor of Chiropractic, when his symptoms increased after pushing a car. In May of 2016, Dr. Helmer, still treating Murphy regularly, opined that Murphy's symptoms, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, were "consistent these past 18 years" and were "a direct result of his 1991 injury and [its] sequelae." Dr. Helmer recommended continued chiropractic care, a frequent-lifting restriction of 10 to 15 pounds, and an occasional-lifting restriction of 30 to 40 pounds. Based on Dr. Helmer's opinion, Murphy presented claims to WestRock, Smurfit-Stone's successor, for permanent partial disability and vocational rehabilitation benefits. WestRock denied Murphy's claim on the ground it was premised upon the medical determination of a chiropractor, rather than a physician, as required by the 1991 workers' compensation statutes.

         ¶3 Murphy filed a Petition in the Worker's Compensation Court. WestRock obtained an independent medical examination (IME) from Emily Heid, an orthopedic surgeon, who opined that, to a reasonable medical probability, Murphy's physical restrictions were unrelated to his 1991 occupational injury. WestRock moved for summary judgment, arguing the 1991 statutes required a "physician" to determine medical restrictions, that the 1991 definition of "physician" did not include chiropractors, and therefore, Dr. Heid's opinion was the only permissible determination in the record and legally unrebutted. Murphy responded that the definition of "physician" was revised in 1993 to include chiropractors, and argued that the new definition should be retroactively applied, citing this Court's decision in EBI/Orion Grp. v. Blythe, 281 Mont. 50, 931 P.2d 38 (1997), to permit consideration of Dr. Helmer's opinion, which would create a dispute of material fact regarding the causation of his injuries and render summary judgment improper.

         ¶4 The Workers' Compensation Court reasoned that Blythe could not be reconciled with our later holding in Fleming v. Int'l Paper Co., 2008 MT 327, 346 Mont. 141, 194 P.3d 77, in which we stated there was "no exception" to the rule that procedural statutes "in effect on the date of the accident or injury control in workers' compensation cases." Fleming, ¶¶ 28, 26. The Workers' Compensation Court concluded it was bound to follow Fleming as this Court's most recent holding on the issue, and, thus, Murphy's claims were governed by the 1991 statutes, rendering Dr. Helmer's opinion inadmissible and Dr. Heid's opinion uncontested. It therefore granted summary judgment to WestRock. Murphy appeals.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶5 We review the Montana Workers' Compensation Court's conclusions of law for correctness. Blythe, 281 Mont. at 53, 931 P.2d at 39 (citations omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         ¶6 Did the Workers' Compensation Court err by holding that a chiropractor may notmake a medical determination regarding the ...


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