State of Connecticut Workers' Compensation Commission, John A. Mastropietro, Chairman
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Kusznier v. Modern Woodcrafts, Inc.

CASE NO. 4156 CRB-06-99-11

COMPENSATION REVIEW BOARD

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMMISSION

DECEMBER 22, 2000

JERZY KUSZNIER

CLAIMANT-APPELLANT

v.

MODERN WOODCRAFTS, INC.

EMPLOYER

and

HARTFORD INSURANCE GROUP

INSURER

RESPONDENTS-APPELLEES

APPEARANCES:

The claimant was represented by Timothy F. Mills, Esq., Smigelski & Mills, L.L.C., 122 Main Street, New Britain, CT 06051-0875.

The respondents were represented by Frank Ancona, Esq., Edward Henfey & Associates, 55 Farmington Avenue, Suite 500, Hartford, CT 06105.

This Petition for Review from the November 19, 1999 Finding and Dismissal of the Commissioner acting for the Sixth District was heard July 14, 2000 before a Compensation Review Board panel consisting of the Commission Chairman John A. Mastropietro and Commissioners Robin L. Wilson and Leonard S. Paoletta.

OPINION

JOHN A. MASTROPIETRO, CHAIRMAN. The claimant has petitioned for review from the November 19, 1999 Finding and Dismissal of the Commissioner acting for the Sixth District. He argues on appeal that the trial commissioner erred by dismissing his allegation that someone at his workplace secretly drugged him with opiates, causing him to become ill. We affirm the trial commissioner’s decision.

The trial commissioner found that, according to the claimant’s testimony, he reported to work on the morning of October 11, 1994. After eating breakfast and lunch on the employer’s premises, he experienced symptoms of dizziness, headache, nausea, and numbness in various parts of his body. He left work and went to the police department, where he complained that someone at his shop had tainted his food and/or drink with foreign substances, which had also occurred on several previous occasions. Though he had no proof, he suspected that this was happening when he left his lunch in the cafeteria. The claimant then went to the hospital, where he made the same allegations. The trier noted that the claimant had been an excellent employee prior to this incident, and that he generally kept to himself at work.

The claimant remained out of work for a while. When he returned early in 1995, he claimed that he had again been poisoned, causing him to leave the woodcrafting shop for good. Two psychiatrists have treated the claimant, and have diagnosed him with such ailments as delusional disorder, major depression, and bipolar disorder. However, a toxicologist, Dr. Pape, attested on the claimant’s behalf that a urine sample taken on October 11, 1994 revealed traces of codeine and morphine. Although the opiate residue could have come from poppy seeds, cough syrups, Tylenol, or codeine pain medication, the doctor stated that the presence of this substance was also consistent with the claimant’s allegation that he had unwittingly ingested opiates at his job. The trier did not give much credence to Dr. Pape’s testimony, labeling it “vague, conjectural and speculative.” He also found the claimant’s testimony to be unreliable and unpersuasive, as no evidence had been offered to link any of the claimant’s co-employees with the alleged acts of poisoning. The trier accordingly dismissed the instant claim, from which decision the claimant has filed this appeal.

In order to recover for an injury under the Workers’ Compensation Act, a claimant must prove that his injury is causally connected to his employment. Spatafore v. Yale University, 239 Conn. 408, 417 (1996); Davis v. University of Connecticut, 3822 CRB-2-98-5 (Aug. 17, 1999). The claimant must satisfy a two-part test to establish this connection: he must demonstrate that his injury (1) arose out of his employment, and (2) occurred in the course of his employment. Id., 417-18; Mazzone v. Connecticut Transit Co., 240 Conn. 788, 792 (1997). The former requirement concerns the origin and cause of the incident, while the latter relates to the time, place and circumstances of the incident. Id., 792-93. Whether or not these elements of the test have been established is a question of fact for the trial commissioner, who must draw an inference from the subordinate factual findings to make that decision. Spatafore, supra, 418; LeBlanc v. Aramark Corp., 3693 CRB-2-97-9 (Nov. 24, 1998). “If said inference is supported by the evidence and [consistent] with the law, it cannot be set aside on appeal by a reviewing tribunal.” Id., quoting Fair v. People’s Savings Bank, 207 Conn. 535, 539 (1988).

The claimant alleged below that he was the victim of opiate poisoning by someone at his workplace, which made him ill and now entitles him to compensation. Investigations by both the police and the claimant’s employer revealed no evidence that anyone committed such a crime. However, the claimant contends that, in light of the Act’s remedial and humanitarian spirit, he satisfied his burden of persuasion by offering proof that (1) his illness was due to opiate ingestion, and (2) said ingestion probably occurred during the hours of his employment at the respondent’s woodworking shop. “In the instant case, if the narcotics or other poison were somehow administered to the claimant[] at the workplace, then the strict liability of Workers’ Compensation controls and the injury, and its sequelae, are compensable under the act. Requiring corroborating support of investigations by employers or police places an impermissible burden on the claimant.” Brief, p. 6. The claimant also asserts that the trier misinterpreted Dr. Pape’s testimony regarding other potential sources of the opiate traces that were found in the claimant’s urine, which led him to discount the toxicologist’s opinion.

All of these arguments presuppose that the trial commissioner had to accept both the claimant’s testimony and that of Dr. Pape as accurate as long as there were no tangible discrepancies in their stories, opinions, etc., that would likely discredit their remarks. The truth is, however, that the trier’s factfinding authority is plenary, particularly with respect to credibility issues involving evidence and the testimony of lay and expert witnesses. Pallotto v. Blakeslee Prestress, Inc., 3651 CRB-3-97-7 (July 17, 1998). He is not required to give credence to anyone’s testimony, even if there is no concrete evidence to contradict it. Id. He is also not required to explain his reasons for believing or disbelieving the testimony of any particular witness, including the claimant in this case. Admin. Reg. § 31-301-3; Perry v. Commercial Interior Systems, 3571 CRB-7-97-4 (June 3, 1998). Therefore, when the commissioner stated that he found the claimant’s testimony to be unpersuasive, and the testimony of Dr. Pape to be overly conjectural, he was establishing a factual predicate that is not vulnerable to reassessment on appeal barring an obvious and material mistake on the part of the trier. Fair v. People’s Savings Bank, 207 Conn. 535, 539 (1988).

There is no evidence that any such error occurred here. The trier was perfectly entitled to reject the substance of the claimant’s testimony based on his own perception of the claimant as a witness. With respect to Dr. Pape, the trier made findings that he (1) acknowledged that opiate residue could come from several common products, and (2) did not offer credible evidence regarding the quantity of opiates that were ingested. The claimant objects that there is no evidence that the claimant ingested any of the substances that might have led to a positive urinalysis result for codeine and morphine residue, and characterizes these findings as arbitrary, unfounded observations that have caused harmful error. Brief, pp. 10-12. We disagree that these findings are unsupported by the record. Dr. Pape indeed listed various common products that contain codeine and morphine, and stated that the readings in the claimant’s tests could be explained by the ingestion of such products if the substance of the claimant’s testimony were discounted. January 27, 1999 Transcript, 31-33. He relied heavily on the claimant’s testimony in opining that he had most likely consumed opiates at the workplace; as an objective proposition, the doctor could not tell from the urinalysis results alone how long these drugs had been in the claimant’s system without knowing the amount of the drug he had ingested. His opinion was dependent on a hypothetical scenario that reflected the claimant’s version of the events that led up to his illness.

In essence, the claimant attempted to prove his case by process of elimination. He sought to demonstrate not only that his illness was caused by opiates in his system, but that said depressant was ingested at work without his knowledge due to the surreptitious actions of another person. Because no responsible party had been identified, the claimant tried to prove his case by disclaiming any knowing use of morphine, codeine, or any substance that might incidentally contain amounts of either drug. This made it essential that the claimant convince the trier of fact that his testimony was reliable, credible, and thorough. He was unable to do that, however. Therefore, the trier rejected not only the claimant’s testimony, but the speculative opinion of Dr. Pape as well. No legal error was committed in this process. The claimant’s allegation of a compensable injury depended entirely on the trier’s acceptance of his story. When that failed to materialize, the remainder of his claim had no concrete support.

The trial commissioner’s decision is hereby affirmed.

Commissioners Robin L. Wilson and Leonard S. Paoletta concur.

Workers’ Compensation Commission

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State of Connecticut Workers' Compensation Commission, John A. Mastropietro, Chairman
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