Legal Corner

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Failure to accommodate is costly for employers

In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Linda K. Atkins v. Dolgencorp L.L.C., dba Dollar General Corp., a federal appeals court affirmed a jury verdict of more than $277,000 to a former diabetic Dollar General worker. She worked the register and was often alone, so she could not leave her station when she experienced a low blood sugar episode. Her manager refused to let her keep a bottle of orange juice at her register, so when she had an attack she took a bottle of juice from the store cooler and drank it, later paying the $1.69 she owed for each bottle and told her manager.

She was fired for violating Dollar General’s “grazing policy,” which forbids employees from consuming merchandise in the store before paying for it. The appeals court affirmed the jury awards of $27,565 in back pay and $250,000 in compensatory damages, and the court awarded her lawyers $445,322 in attorney’s fees and $1,677 in expenses. The jury found Dollar General failed to provide reasonable alternatives to keeping orange juice at her register.

In Stanley Christie v. Georgia-Pacific Co., Ace American Insurance Co., director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Program, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco awarded permanent total disability to a man who injured his back working for a large paper company that failed to prove that they provided the employee with adequate accommodations after returning to work. While the company assigned him to a less-demanding warehouse position, the position required some lifting, which was difficult for him.

When he learned that the company was eliminating its early retirement program, he decided to retire because he did not feel he could work in pain for another six years. About two years later, his treating physician said he had reached maximum medical improvement, and he filed a claim seeking permanent total disability benefits under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act, for which he was eligible.

The DOL’s Benefits Review Board, denied the claim, arguing his loss of wages was due to retirement, not the work injury. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously reversed, noting that his inability to work pushed him to retirement and the company had failed to provide suitable alternative work and had not documented any accommodations.

Workers’ Compensation
Injured worker cannot sue utilization reviewer – California

In King v. Comppartners, Inc., an utilization reviewer denied a treating physician’s request to continue prescribing Klonopin, a psychotropic drug, for an injured employee. The injured worker argued that the reviewer owed him a duty of care and had caused additional injuries by denying the request without authorizing a weaning regimen or warning him of the possible side effects of abruptly ceasing the medication. When he stopped taking the medication, he suffered four seizures.

The case found its way to the state Supreme Court, which found that utilization reviewers, in performing their statutory functions, effectively stood in the shoes of employers. As such, they were provided with the same immunity from tort liability as employers.

Safety consultant owes duty of care – California

In Oscar Peredia et al. v. HR Mobile Services Inc., parents filed a wrongful death claim against HR Mobile Services Inc., a workplace safety adviser for the employer of their son, who died in a work-related accident. The 5th District Court of Appeal found that HR Mobile agreed to assist the employer in carrying out its workplace safety obligations, and accepted a role in conducting safety inspections and safety training. As such, it can be held liable for injuries the third party suffers as a result.

Public employer can fire an injured worker who cannot perform essential job functions – Massachusetts

In Robert McEachen v. Boston Housing Authority (BHA), a carpenter for the Boston Housing Authority was injured and placed on FMLA and medical leave. About a year later, a termination hearing was held with the union and the employee and it was concluded that “he is unable to return to work and cannot perform the essential functions of his job.” The employee did not disagree and argued he could return to work in a modified duty capacity, supervising other carpenters. Such a position did not exist.

When he was terminated, he appealed to the Civil Service Commission, which upheld the BHA decision, noting the employee was unable to perform the essential functions of the job. A three-judge panel of the state appellate court affirmed.

Decision not to use handrail nixes comp claim – Minnesota

The Supreme Court ruled that an employee who fell down a flight of steps while at work is not due workers compensation because she chose not to use a handrail. In Laurie A. Roller-Dick v. CentraCare Health System and SFM Mutual Cos., the employee was leaving work, carrying a plant with both hands,when she fell down a flight of stairs and fractured her ankle. While she argued that her shoe stuck on the non-slip treads on the stairs, the compensation judge held that the injury did not arise out of employment because she failed to establish that the stairs were “more hazardous than stairs she might encounter in everyday life or that her work duties in some way increased her risk of falling as she descended them.”

While it was true that failure to use the handrail increased her risk of falling, there was no work-related reason not to use the handrail. The Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals overturned the judge’s ruling, arguing that stairs in the workplace are inherently hazardous. However, the Supreme Court disagreed and reinstated the ruling of the compensation judge.

Teacher cannot sue school for injuries incurred when breaking up a fight – Minnesota

In Ekblad v. Independent Sch. Dist. No. 625, the 8th U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled that workers’ comp exclusive remedy bars a teacher from suing the school after he was seriously hurt breaking up a student brawl. The employee argued negligence and negligent supervision as well as failure to provide a safe workplace and a lenient policy toward minority students’ violent misconduct.

The court found that none of the three relevant exceptions to the exclusive remedy provision – the assault exception, the intentional act exception, and the co-employee liability exception – applied in this case.

Employer rebuts 100% industrial loss because employee has marketable skills – Mississippi

In Bridgeman v. SBC Internet Services, a worker suffered a compensable injury, was unable to return to his job that involved climbing utility poles, and he was terminated by his employer. Under law, there is a presumption of 100% industrial loss when the worker proves he can no longer perform his usual employment. This presumption is rebuttable, if the employer can prove the employee could earn the same wages in another position.

If the employer successfully rebuts the presumption, the employee will not recover for a 100% industrial loss of use, but receives a recovery based on the greater of his losses from the medical impairment or the industrial loss-of-use rating. Since the employer presented evidence that the employee had a computer science degree, had been a teacher, and could perform medium to heavy work, an appeals court upheld lower court decisions that granted a 50% industrial loss of use of his arm.

Subject-matter jurisdiction can be challenged at any time – North Carolina

In Burgess v. Smith, a young woman who sold cleaning products door-to-door was killed in a single car accident, driven by her co-worker. Her mother filed a wrongful death suit against the driver and her employer and neither responded to the summons. A trial judge entered a default judgment against the defendants for more than $2 million. Five months later, the employer filed a motion to set aside the default judgment, arguing that she was an employee (although he argued earlier she was an independent contractor) and that the superior court lacked jurisdiction over the claim.

The court of appeals overturned the superior court judge denial, noting that subject-matter jurisdiction may be challenged at any time, even after the default judgment. The court remanded the case with instructions for the judge to determine if there was an employer-employee relationship.

Employee cannot sue employer for failure to provide a stress-free environment – North Carolina

In Jones v. Wells Fargo Co., a former employee argued that the bank and her supervisor failed to provide her with a safe working environment free from mental stress or anxiety and aggravated a pre-existing mental condition, which they knew about. While she argued that the exclusive remedy of workers’ comp did not apply because of “egregious and extreme conduct,” the court disagreed.

Parking lot injury compensable – Pennsylvania

In Piedmont Airlines v. WCAB (Watson), an airline employee fell into a pile of snow in the employee parking lot and broke his finger. The employee parking lot, which was owned and operated by the Department of Aviation, required an identification card for entry and the employer had issued one to the employee.

The Commonwealth Court noted that when an injury does not take place while performing job duties, it is compensable if the injury occurred on the employer’s premises, the worker’s presence on the premises was required by the nature of his employment, and the injury was caused by the condition of the premises or by operation of employer’s business. The court found that all three factors were met and, therefore, the injury was compensable.

Failure to accept modified duty means benefits can be adjusted – Pennsylvania

In Pettine v. WCAB (Verizon Pennsylvania), an employee was struck by a car when marking the road and suffered compensable injuries. He later requested that the claim be expanded to include his back and shoulder. When he declined an offer of a modified job that met his physical restrictions, vocational background, and geographical area, Verizon sought to modify his benefits.

The case went through several appeals, but in each case, the employee’s petition was denied and Verizon’s was granted.

Compromise & Release (C & R) agreement may not be used to avoid paying third party fees – Pennsylvania

In Armour Pharmacy v. Bureau of Workers’ Comp, the terms of a settlement included that the company pay for all necessary medical treatment. Many years after the injury, the company requested a Utilization Review (UR) of a newly prescribed topical cream, which was determined to be reasonable and necessary treatment.

The company then entered into an agreement with the employee that stated its liability for his medical expenses did not include any past, present or future costs for any compounded prescription cream. Several months later, the employee filled another prescription for the same cream, and the company refused to pay the more than $6,000 bill.

The court explained that the C & R bind each other, but cannot release them from liability to an entity who is not a party, in this case, the pharmacy. An employer can challenge a provider’s treatment as neither reasonable nor necessary, only through UR, and the company had not challenged the second prescription.

Benefits for volunteer firefighter overturned – Pennsylvania

In East Hempfield Township v. WCAB, a long-term volunteer firefighter was diagnosed with cancer four years after taking the job with the township. Several years later he filed for workers’ compensation benefits, asserting that his cancer had been caused by his exposure to carcinogens while volunteering for the township.

The case went through several appeals with varying decisions related to whether adequate notice of the claim had been properly given. The burden of proof is on the worker to show that notice was issued within 120 days of the injury, or the date upon which he knew, or should have known, he had a potential claim.

While the employee was diagnosed years earlier, he argued he did not know of the causal link between his cancer and firefighting and filed within 120 days when he received a doctor’s letter noting the connection. The Commonwealth Court found that the relevant inquiry was not when the employee actually knew of the work-relatedness of his injury, but rather when he should have known the work-relatedness through the exercise of reasonable diligence. The case was vacated and remanded.

High court upholds total disability award for trucker with pre-existing degenerative disc disease – Tennessee

In Wesley David Fly v. Mr. Bult’s Inc. et al., the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel with the Supreme Court affirmed a circuit court ruling that a trucker’s total disability was caused by a workplace injury, not the pre-existing degenerative disc disease, which was discovered at the time of the injury. The court noted that the law requires employers to “take an employee as he is,” and “all reasonable doubts as to the causation of an injury and whether the injury arose out of the employment should be resolved in favor of the employee.”

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