Medical opinions conflict in RFTA injury trial |

Medical opinions conflict in RFTA injury trial

Jurors in the case of Erik Shelton vs. the Roaring Fork Transit Agency will have to decide who to believe in the face of conflicting opinions regarding Shelton’s medical condition.

During Tuesday’s second day of testimony, two orthopaedic surgeons flatly disagreed over whether Shelton’s back problems were an outcome from his accident with a RFTA bus more than three years ago.

On Feb. 1, 1996, Shelton’s open car door was hit by a RFTA bus. Shelton was parked on Main Street in front of the Miners Building and was exiting his car when the collision occurred, knocking him out of the vehicle. Following the incident, Shelton was taken to Aspen Valley Hospital and released the same day.

Shelton claims that back trauma he sustained in the accident has drastically affected his job opportunities and a former active recreational lifestyle. Second opinions The case comes down to which 30-year-plus veteran of orthopaedics to believe.

Earlier this year, Shelton underwent laser surgery on his back. The surgeon who performed the operation took the stand early in the day.

In Dr. Grafton Sieber’s opinion, Shelton “has sustained permanent injury in his back.” Testifying that surgery was necessary to alleviate Shelton’s pain, Sieber agreed that the injuries “probably” could be traced to the RFTA accident.

Sieber also corroborated that Shelton’s employment prospects were likely to be impaired by having “to work around a pain pattern.” His limitations include: no heavy lifting, an inability to stand for prolonged durations and an inability to drive for extended periods of time, Sieber said.

But RFTA’s expert witness, retired after 35 years of practicing and teaching orthopaedic surgery, offered a starkly different view of Shelton’s condition.

According to Dr. Robert Mack, who examined Shelton in 1997 and reviewed Shelton’s medical history, little or no trauma was sustained from the RFTA collision. In his opinion, the accident caused no “acute injury” and there was “no evidence of permanent injury.”

Instead, Mack attributed “minor” problems with Shelton’s back to either a “degenerative disease” or “repetitive trauma.”

“If you’re going to blame one injury, you would expect to see pretty dramatic evidence of trauma. … In an acute injury, I expect discs to be ruptured,” Mack said. “In my opinion, [Shelton’s] minor disc protrusions can be perfectly normal in an active young man.”

Backing up Mack’s assessment were notes taken by an AVH emergency room physician. In an examination report following the 1996 accident, the attending physician noted “no acute distress” and a “full range of motion.”

It was noted that Shelton complained of back pain and was given medication for it. But he was released the same day and Shelton recalled simply being told to “take it easy for a few days.” “Before I get old …” Taking time off from college, Shelton came to Aspen in the winter of 1995 “to enjoy snowboarding, mountain biking and other outdoor activities.

“I had come out for an indefinite period of time to enjoy the mountains before I get old,” said Shelton, who was 22 when he first arrived in Aspen from Duluth, Minn.

Taking on part-time work, Shelton has worked as a line cook at the now-defunct Cafe Metropolitan, as a doorman at the Tippler and as a cashier at Gwyn’s High Alpine restaurant. He is now a bartender at Cooper St. Pier.

Shelton contends that injuries from the 1996 accident have impaired his ability to find work and have significantly curtailed his recreational activity.

On Tuesday, Shelton testified that he wasn’t granted an interview as a taxi driver because the company’s insurance didn’t cover his back problems.

But RFTA attorney Chad Neuens challenged the claim that Shelton’s employment was significantly impacted by the collision.

The evidence is contained in Shelton’s tax returns from 1995 to 1998, Neuens argued. Before the accident, Shelton’s reported income in 1995 was about $5,000. In subsequent years, Shelton’s income ranged from $3,976 to $4,290.

Shelton continues to live in Aspen and hopes to snowboard this season. He hasn’t hit the slopes since 1997, he said, because snowboarding after the RFTA collision “laid me up for days after.”

Testimony is expected to wrap up today in District Court.

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