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Appeal of Fuce

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

November 14, 2011

Appeal of Janet Fuce

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

The claimant, Janet Fuce, appeals an order of the compensation appeals board (board) denying her claim for reimbursement of certain medical expenses. While she lists ten issues in her brief, her argument can be distilled to the following: whether the board erred in: (1) determining that there was a change in her medical condition; and (2) failing to acknowledge that palliative treatment is compensable. We affirm.

We will affirm the board's decision absent an error of law, or unless, by a clear preponderance of the evidence, we find it to be unjust or unreasonable. Appeal of Belair, 158 N.H. 273, 276 (2009). The board's factual findings are prima facie lawful and reasonable. RSA 541:13 (2007). In reviewing the board's findings "our task is not to determine whether we would have found differently than did the board, or to reweigh the evidence, but rather to determine whether the findings are supported by competent evidence in the record." Appeal of Dean Foods, 158 N.H. 467, 474 (2009) (quotation omitted). The appealing party has the burden of demonstrating that the board's decision was erroneous. Appeal of Belair, 158 N.H. at 276.

We briefly restate the relevant facts of this case. The claimant sought reimbursement for medical treatment provided from June 2009 through January 2010, asserting that the treatment was related to an injury she suffered in October 2003. The employer, Sun Health Specialty Services, Inc., denied her request, arguing that the treatment was no longer reasonable. After a hearing, the board concluded that the employer had established that the cited treatment was not causally related to the claimant's injury (2010 decision).

The claimant first argues that the employer is collaterally estopped from challenging the causal relationship of the injury due to a September 2008 decision of a previous compensation appeals board (2008 decision). Whether the employer is collaterally estopped from litigating causation is a matter of law, that we review de novo. Appeal of Wingate, 149 N.H. 12, 14 (2002). Under RSA 281-A:23, I (2010), an employer has a continuing obligation to pay for medical care as long as is required by an injured employee's condition where it bears liability for the initial injury that necessitated the subsequent health care. Id. at 15. A claimant is entitled to compensation for medical treatment only as long as the condition or disability requiring the treatment is causally related to the initial compensable injury. Id. It is the claimant's burden to prove that the subsequent medical treatment is reasonable and required as a result of the injury. Id. The doctrine of collateral estoppel precludes parties, or those in privity with them, from relitigating in a subsequent action any issue that was actually litigated in a prior proceeding where they were also parties. Id.

The claimant argues that Wingate barred the 2010 board from revisiting the issue of causality. We disagree. As the employer notes, the issues before the board in 2008 differed from those in 2010. In 2008, the board was asked to consider both the claimant's compliance with a vocational rehabilitation plan and her continued eligibility for compensation. Although the board found that the ongoing treatment in 2008 "remain[ed] causally related to the injury, " it obviously found that her condition had improved as it reduced her compensation rate to the diminished earning capacity rate. As we have previously observed, RSA chapter 281-A contemplates that an employee's condition may improve over time. See RSA 281-A:48, I (2010); Appeal of Carnahan, 160 N.H. 73, 77 (2010). In this case, the board found that the employer had met its burden and established that the medical treatment for which the claimant sought reimbursement was no longer related to her 2003 back sprain. This decision has support in the record. See RSA 541:13. Although the claimant seeks to have us reweigh the evidence, that is not our function. Given our conclusion, we need not separately address the claimant's remaining issues, including whether palliative care is compensable.

Affirmed.

DALIANIS, C. J., and DUGGAN and LYNN, JJ., ...


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