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In re Worker's Compensation Claim of Hoffman v. State ex rel Wyoming Workers' Safety and Compensation Division

December 21, 2012


Appeal from the District Court of Natrona County The Honorable David B. Park, Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kite, Chief Justice.

Before KITE, C.J., HILL, VOIGT, BURKE, JJ., and GOLDEN, J., Retired.

KITE, C.J., delivers the opinion of the Court; HILL, J., files a specially concurring opinion.

[¶1] Randy W. Hoffman injured his back while working in 1994. As a result, he had three back surgeries between 1995 and 2004. The Wyoming Worker's Compensation Division (the Division) paid him benefits for the injury and associated treatment. In 2009, he fell on the ice at his home and underwent a fourth back surgery. Claiming that the surgery was connected to his original work injury, Mr. Hoffman sought benefits. The Division denied his claim. After a hearing, the Medical Commission (the Commission) upheld the denial, concluding that Mr. Hoffman had failed to prove the 2009 surgery was causally connected to his 1994 work injury. Mr. Hoffman filed a petition for review in district court, which affirmed the denial. In his appeal to this Court, Mr. Hoffman asserts the Commission's decision is arbitrary, capricious and not in accordance with the law because the evidence overwhelmingly showed the fourth surgery was causally connected to his work injury. We conclude that when the proper legal standard is applied, the Commission's determination was contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence. We, therefore, reverse.


[¶2] Mr. Hoffman presents the following issue for this Court's determination:

1. Whether the order denying benefits for Mr. Hoffman's Second Fusion was arbitrary, capricious, and not in accordance with law.

The Division asserts substantial evidence supported the Commission's decision.


[¶3]In October of 1994, while working on a drilling rig for Dunbar Well Service near Gillette, Wyoming, Mr. Hoffman fell from the rig floor to the ground three feet below, injuring his back. After treating the injury conservatively for several months, Mr. Hoffman's physician performed a surgical hemilaminectomy with partial discectomy at the L5-S1 level in 1995.

[¶4] Six years later, in 2001, after Mr. Hoffman began experiencing pain in his lower back and leg, an orthopedic spine surgeon repeated the surgery performed in 1995. Between 2002 and 2004, Mr. Hoffman again experienced lower back pain. He was referred to Dr. Thomas A. Kopitnik, a neurosurgeon, who ultimately performed a third surgery, fusing L4-5 and L5-S1. Mr. Hoffman received worker's compensation benefits for his treatment from the date of his injury through the 2004 surgery.

[¶5] In April of 2009, Mr. Hoffman slipped and fell on ice at his home. After suffering from back pain for several weeks, he again saw Dr. Kopitnik, who recommended another surgery to fuse the two levels above the site of the 2004 surgery. Dr. Kopitnik sought preauthorization for the surgery from the Division, stating that Mr. Hoffman's fall on the ice exacerbated the underlying condition created by his work injury. The Division retained Dr. Paul C. Williams, a neurosurgeon, to perform an independent medical evaluation (IME). Dr. Williams concluded Mr. Hoffman's back issues were less influenced by his work injury than degenerative changes resulting from natural aging. After receiving Dr. Williams' report, the Division issued a final determination denying preauthorization for the second fusion surgery. Mr. Hoffman objected to the determination and requested a contested case hearing.

[¶6] Prior to the hearing, Dr. Kopitnik performed the second fusion surgery. Consequently, the issue for determination at the hearing was not whether the Division properly denied preauthorization for the surgery but whether the surgery was covered by worker's compensation. After the hearing, the Commission denied benefits, concluding that Mr. Hoffman failed to meet his burden of proving the 2009 fusion was causally connected to his 1994 work injury. In reaching that conclusion, the Commission found:

- "Mr. Hoffman's present spinal problems are primarily caused by the non-industrial fall superimposed on a degenerating back . . .";

- "[his] need for surgery on the L2-3 and L3-4 segments . . . is not primarily due to adjacent segment deterioration as indicated by Dr. Kopitnik";

- "the non-work-related fall in 2009 was the primary contributing incident for Mr. Hoffman's need for an additional surgery and fusion, coupled with his profound degenerative profile."

In its conclusions of law, the Commission stated:

Mr. Hoffman had received an excellent result from the 2004 fusion, and all medical expenses were paid by the Division as part of his original 1994 injury. To hold the Employer responsible for care and treatment 15 years later, when a non-industrial intervening cause created the need for the latest surgery seems inherently ...

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