A panel of Commonwealth Court has refused to disturb a ruling made in the case of a former Wheatland Tube employee who suffered hand and arm injuries in an industrial accident.

Wheatland Tube sought to modify the benefits of James Pannutti, but was rebuffed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and a workers’ compensation judge.

Pannutti was injured on May 25, 2000, while working as laborer. He was removing a band from a steel coil when the band pulled through the snubber roll, which holds the coiled steel end as it is threaded into the mill. His left hand was drawn into the snubber roll. Pannutti had partial amputation of all fingers on that hand, and skin grafts on his hand and arm.

Wheatland Tube asked to modify his benefits on Oct. 18, 2001, arguing that his injury “had resolved itself into a loss of the use of his left hand for all practical intents and purposes.” Pannutti has “no disability separate and apart from the specific loss,” Wheatland Tube said.

Pannutti testified he had “pins and needles” in his wrist and forearm after the accident, and began experiencing elbow pain and restricted movement in about May 2001.

The company wants to end his benefits on March 21, 2007, after which he will have received 355 weeks of disability payments and 20 weeks for healing.

As often happens with these kinds of cases, the judge had to decide between differing medical opinions. Wheatland Tube presented the testimony of Dr. James K. Smith, a plastic surgeon with qualifications in hand surgery, who examined Pannutti and reviewed his previous medical reports. Smith determined that Pannutti’s left elbow had a normal range of motion.

Another physician testifying for Wheatland Tube, Dr. Steven E. Kann, an orthopedic surgeon with qualifications in hand surgery, said Pannutti could fully extend his elbow “with encouragement.” He determined that Pannutti suffered no ongoing disability other than his hand injury.

The physician at Allegheny General Hospital who treated Pannutti right after the accident, Dr. Frederick Heckler, said Pannutti had lost some ability to extend his elbow, but “does not have any separate and other disabilities apart from the loss of the use of the hand.”

Dr. Michael Larkin examined Pannutti and found internal damage to the arm, including arthritis, that is attributable to a traumatic event. He said Pannutti suffered an injury comparable with someone getting their arm sucked into a wringer washer. In those cases, it’s human nature to try to pull the arm back out, which can cause more damage to the arm. This damage is not necessarily recognizable right away, especially when medical professionals are treating an obvious, severe injury, Larkin said.

A worker’s compensation judge ruled Oct. 14, 2003, that Pannutti’s testimony was credible and Larkin’s was “more credible and persuasive” than that of Kann and Smith. The appeal board affirmed the judge’s ruling.

Among Wheatland Tube’s contentions in its appeal to Commonwealth Court was that the workers’ compensation judge did not issue a “reasoned decision,” that the decision was not based on “legally competent evidence” and that he “capriciously disregarded” the medical opinions by the doctors testifying for the company.

Larkin’s testimony was not credible because his opinion was not supported by Pannutti’s medical records or the history of the injury, the company said.

A three-judge panel of Commonwealth Court said the workers’ compensation judge “adequately articulated” the reasons for determining credibility and would not overrule a credibility determination made by the judge, who has the authority to make that determination.

The court noted that the judge did not specifically refer to the report from Heckler that he had no injuries other than the loss of the hand.

Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley, writing for the court, said the judge “is not required to address specifically each bit of evidence.”

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