Legal Corner

Workers’ Compensation
Worker has right to obtain medical report from doctor of his choice – California

In Davis v. WCAB (City of Modesto), Davis filed two workers’ compensation claims stating his prostate cancer developed because of his exposure to carcinogens while working as a firefighter. A qualified medical examiner (QME) issued opinions that the cancer was not work-related and Davis then hired a doctor to review the reports, which were sent to the QME for review. The city protested that this violated the discovery process and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) rescinded a judge’s order that had allowed the review.

Upon appeal, however, the WCAB filed a letter brief to the Court of Appeals, asking for review to be granted and for its decision to be vacated, since the decision had not addressed Labor Code Section 4605. Section 4605 says there is no limitation on the right of a worker to obtain a medical report, at his own expense, from the doctor of his choice. While the report cannot be “the sole basis of an award of compensation,” Section 4605 specifically allows a QME to address the report and respond to its contents.

Traveling worker denied benefits for fall in motel parking lot – Georgia

In Avrett Plumbing Co. v. Castillo, an hourly employee lived in Atlanta, but his job required him to work in Augusta. The company paid a weekly rate to provide him a hotel room and allowed him to use it on weekends at no cost. On a Sunday evening when returning from grocery shopping he tripped and fell in the parking lot, breaking his ankle. When he filed for workers’ comp, the company argued that the accident had not occurred during the course of employment, since it happened outside of normal work hours and the employee was engaged in activities unrelated to his job.

An administrative law judge disagreed and found the injury compensable under the “continuous employment” doctrine, because the employee was “required by his employment to live away from home while working.” The case went through several more appeals, and benefits were ultimately denied with the court finding the employee was there “merely as a personal convenience” (lack of money and transportation prevented travel to Atlanta) and that the errand was for the sole benefit of the employee.

Willful misconduct may bar comp benefits – Georgia

An employee who disobeys an employer’s instructions and acts in a dangerous fashion may not be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, the Supreme Court ruled. Chandler Telecom v. Burdette revolved around the question of willful misconduct. A cellphone tower employee sustained serious injuries attempting a “controlled descent” from a tower, even though a supervisor ordered him not to attempt the descent and to climb down and the crew’s lead tower repeatedly protested his actions.

The Board of Workers’ Compensation concluded the employee could not receive comp benefits because he engaged in willful misconduct by defying his supervisor’s instructions, a decision that was affirmed by a Superior Court. However, the Court of Appeals reversed, saying his actions did not constitute willful misconduct because his actions were not of a “quasi criminal nature…”

The Supreme Court found that the appellate court erred in its ruling, noting the proper interpretation of a 1993 decision defining willful misconduct is “an intentional and deliberate action done either with the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences.” The Supreme Court said it did not have enough information to make a determination about whether willful misconduct had occurred. It remanded the case to the Board of Workers’ Compensation for further fact-finding.

Worker killed by exploding shell can only claim comp – Illinois

An employee was killed by the explosion of a live mortar shell that had been transferred from the U.S. Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California to the Totall Metal Recycling’s (TMR) facility in Granite City. The lawsuit alleged the employer acted intentionally in transporting dangerous materials, but not that the company acted intentionally in injuring the employee. As such, the judge noted any allegation of TMR’s intent to injure the employee would fly in the face of the complaint, which alleges a claim of negligence. Thus, the exclusive remedy of workers’ comp barred the wrongful death claim. Muenstermann v. United States

Exclusive remedy bars negligence suit for borrowed worker – Illinois

An employee of a temporary staffing agency was assigned to work for Lindoo Installations Inc. and suffered a partial amputation of his right index finger when it was trapped between a bundle of shelving and a forklift. He filed for workers’ comp with the staffing agency and filed a negligence claim against Lindoo. While the trial court granted Lindoo’s motion for summary judgment under the exclusive remedy provision, the employee appealed arguing that the staffing agency’s branch manager periodically checked in.

The appeals court affirmed the decision, noting Lindoo met several factors that determine a borrowed employee relationship and qualified as a borrowing employer because it had the right to direct and control the employee’s work. TerranceFalge v. Lindoo Installations Inc.

Undocumented worker due benefits – Kansas

In Mera-Hernandez v. U.S.D. 233, the court found the injuries suffered by an undocumented school custodian were compensable even though she used a false name and submitted falsified documents to the school district when she was hired. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals ruling that her immigration status does not dispute the work she performed for the school district and she fits the broad definition of employee under the law.

Clarifying Schoemehl window, court awards widow comp benefits – Missouri

For a very brief time, Missouri espoused a rule, known as the “Schoemehl doctrine,” that allowed for a permanently and totally disabled worker’s weekly benefits to be passed on to his dependents upon his death. The doctrine is limited to claims that were in existence as of January 2007, the date of the Supreme Court’s decision in Schoemehl v. Treasurer, and had not yet been fully resolved by June 2008, when the legislature then abrogated the doctrine.

In Ogden v. Conagra Foods, Ogden suffered serious injuries to his skull and spine in a 2001 motor vehicle accident and collected more than $2.4 million in benefits until his death in 2014. In 2009, the Ogden’s attorney filed a Form 21 Claim for Compensation for the employee and his wife. After Ogden died, his wife demanded payment on her claim for Schoemehl benefits.

The Industrial Commission determined she was entitled to payment, and Conagra appealed. The Court of Appeals approved benefits, explaining it didn’t matter that the wife’s claim for Schoemehl benefits wasn’t filed within the window of January 2007 to June 2008 because the claim was open and active during this time.

 

Credibility of doctors’ conflicting testimony weighed in appeal – Nebraska

In Hintz v. Farmers Cooperative Association, a worker was injured when a tire exploded, but he did not seek medical care and returned to work after a day-and-a-half absence. About three weeks after the accident, he tripped on the stairs at home and sought medical attention, which revealed a labral tear and other problems with his hip. His physician took him off work and performed surgery, and Farmers’ Cooperative terminated him after several months’ absence.

The worker filed a workers’ comp claim, and his physician testified although the worker had given inconsistent accounts about whether the hip injury was caused by the explosion at work or the trip down the stairs, when he performed surgery he observed a serious labral tear that seemed more likely to have been caused by the workplace explosion. An IME disagreed, testifying the injury was more likely caused by the fall down the stairs.

The Workers’ Compensation Court denied the claim, finding the IME’s testimony to be more reliable, but the Court of Appeals overturned, noting the treating physician had personally seen the extent of the injury during surgery.

Country club worker can proceed with lawsuit after general manager struck him in the groin with a golf club – New York

A country club employee whose left testicle was surgically removed after the club’s general manager struck him in the groin with a golf club is entitled to sue for damages beyond workers’ compensation benefits ruled an appellate court. The locker-room attendant was observing the assembly of golf clubs in the pro shop when the general manager entered and picked up a golf club shaft and struck him in the testicle, then left the room laughing.

The employee and his wife sued the general manager, who sought dismissal of the case based on workers’ comp exclusive remedy. The Court concluded that questions of fact existed as to whether the general manager acted in a ‘grossly negligent and/or reckless’ manner when he swung the golf club shaft and struck the employee and whether the country club condoned the action, thus the civil case can proceed. Montgomery v. Hackenburg.

Blackout caused by non-work conditions does not prohibit benefits – New York

In Nuclear Diagnostic Products, 116 NYWCLR 211, the New York Workers’ Compensation Board awarded benefits to a driver, who crashed his work vehicle after losing consciousness. The driver reported that he started coughing due to an asthmatic reaction to a new air freshener in his house and lost control of the car. The Board explained that since the driver’s accident occurred in the course of his employment he was entitled to a presumption that the accident arose out of his employment and that the driving of the employer’s vehicle was an added risk of employment.

Severe disability from Legionnaires’ Disease compensable – Pennsylvania

An employee of Nestle’s New Jersey office did most of his work in Pennsylvania performing maintenance on beverage machines. He fell ill, was hospitalized, lapsed into a coma, and was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ Disease. The illness left him wheelchair-bound, affected his speech, and the treatment he received may have caused brain damage. Nestle denied the allegations that he contracted the disease while working on fountain and soda drink machines that contained contaminated water, and argued the disease was not a result of work-related exposure. After testimony from a number of personal witnesses and medical experts, a workers’ comp judge determined that the employee was temporarily totally disabled and entitled to workers’ comp benefits. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and the Commonwealth Court affirmed. Nestle USA Inc./Vitality vs. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board

Seasonal worker difficult to prove – Pennsylvania

Two recent decisions of the Commonwealth Court illustrate how difficult it is for an employer to establish that a worker is a seasonal employee. While there is a specific formula for calculating the average wage when a worker is engaged in an “exclusively seasonal” occupation, the law does not provide a definition for the term. The controlling standard comes from a 1927 Supreme Court case which declared seasonal occupations are “those vocations which cannot, from their very nature, be continuous or carried on throughout the year, but only during fixed portions of it.”

In Toigo Orchards v. WCAB (Gaffney), a tractor driver who was hired for a single apple harvest doesn’t fall within the “exclusively seasonal” category. The argument was that the injured employee was “itinerant agricultural labor,” a tractor driver, and that short-term employment is not synonymous with seasonal work. Had he been treated as a seasonal employee his weekly benefits would have been only $31.99, compared to $315.90 weekly, which he was awarded.

In Lidey v. WCAB (Tropical Amusements), a carnival ride fabricator wasn’t an “exclusively seasonal” employee, even though his employer did business only during the summer months. He was awarded $917 per week, based on his weekly wage of $2,000.

Philadelphia Eagles must pay workers’ comp and a penalty for failing to report player’s injury – Pennsylvania

A defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles ruptured his right Achilles tendon during the team’s training camp and underwent surgery and PT until he became a free agent. The team paid for his treatment and surgery and paid his regular salary until his contract expired, but failed to file workers’ comp documents. As a free agent, he rehabilitated at a private facility, which the team paid for, and ruptured his left Achilles tendon and the team paid for the surgery, but he paid for the rehabilitation. He filed for disability benefits and the team argued it should not be responsible for the second injury because it was not work related.

A workers’ compensation judge, and on appeal the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, ruled that the Eagles violated regulations by failing to report his first injury and awarded the claim petition as well as a 50 percent penalty to be paid by his employer on past-due compensation. The Eagles argued it was “not practically possible” to report every injury that occurs as a workers’ compensation claim as they see between 800 to 1,000 injuries during the season and practice. They file workers’ compensation claims only when players need treatment beyond what can be treated in the training facility, and they file NCPs on request.

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