In keeping with past trends, the New Jersey Appellate Court has again refused to overturn a lower court decision that was based on the assessment of a witness’s credibility and competent evidence.
In Smith v H&M Transportation, an unpublished Appellate Court opinion, the petitioner was involved in a work-related motor vehicle accident on January 7, 2017, injuring his legs, left hip and back. The petitioner was noted to have pre-existing low back issues and pain back in 2005 with further treatment in 2009 and diagnostic studies in 2016. The authorized physician opined that the noted disc pathology in new studies was not related to his current symptoms. Therefore, the petitioner was returned to work.
The petitioner disagreed with this determination, obtained an IME report, and filed a motion for medical treatment and temporary disability benefits, resulting in the trial. After the testimony of the petitioner and physicians for both sides, the Workers' Compensation Judge (WCJ) determined the need for treatment was NOT related to the new injury but instead related to his pre-existing underlying condition.
The court found the petitioner’s credibility lacking and found the respondent’s physician was more credible. The petitioner filed an appeal.
The Appellate Court noted its authority to review a WCJ decision was limited and deference should be given to the WCJ. “Substantial deference” should be given to the finder of facts to assess witness credibility as the finder observed the witnesses. The court “will not” substitute its own decision and will “defer” to the judge unless “the finder of fact is so far off the mark as the manifest a mistake."
The court noted that while workers’ compensation is social legislation and the court should take all reasonable steps to give due consideration to benefits for an injured individual, the petitioner still bears the burden to present sufficient evidence to support his allegations. The Appellate Court determined that the WC Judge assessed credibility, applied the appropriate tests, and found that the underlying decision was supported by competent evidence contained in the records. Therefore, the petitioner’s appeal was denied.
Conclusion: As we have seen in other matters, the Appellate Court will not overturn a lower court’s decision on the issues of permanency, or as in this matter on causation and liability, where the decision by the lower court Judge is based on assessment of credibility and competent evidence contained in the record. The Appellate Court allows the sitting Judge to assess the matter and make the determination, without fear of the Appellate Court “Monday morning quarterbacking” the decision.
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