Stewart v. Liberty Northwest

Stewart v. Liberty Northwest, 2013 MT 107 (April 23, 2013) (5-0) (McKinnon, J.)

Issue: (1) Whether the Work Comp Court erred in determining that Stewart is entitled to continued payment for the pain patches prescribed for her; (2) whether the court erred in determining Stewart was not entitled to attorneys’ fees; and (3) whether the court erred in failing to impose the statutory penalty on Liberty, pursuant to § 39-71-2907, MCA.

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) no; and (3) no.


Facts:  Sharon Stewart suffered an injury at work in August 2002. Her employer was insured by Liberty, which accepted liability and paid Stewart wage loss and medical benefits with an 18% whole person impairment rating. Stewart’s initial diagnosis was a probable meniscal tear of her knee. She had two surgeries but continued having pain and decreased range of motion.

The following year, a different doctor assigned Stewart a 33% impairment rating based on a different diagnosis of a possible nerve neuroma. Stewart petitioned the Work Comp Court for an increased impairment rating, and the court held a hearing at which the new doctor testified that he did not know how Stewart’s saphonous nerve could have been injured during her surgeries and could not point to any medical evidence supporting a relationship between her surgeries and her symptoms. As a result, the court determined Stewart failed to prove causation and denied her request for an increased impairment rating. She did not appeal.

A year later, Stewart was told by her pharmacist that Liberty would no longer pay for her pain patches, which she had been using for her knee pain. Stewart petitioned for relief to reinstate payment of the patches, and attorneys’ fees and penalties against Liberty. She supported her request with a medical opinion that either the original injury or the two surgeries were the cause of her chronic pain. After a short break in payments, Liberty resumed paying under a reservation of rights.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The parties submitted the case to the Work Comp Court on a stipulated record, which held that Stewart had met her burden and was entitled to payment for her pain medication, but was not entitled to attorneys’ fees or a statutory penalty. Liberty appeals, Stewart cross-appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.