Legal Corner

Workers’ Compensation
Appellate court clarifies permanent disability rule – California

In Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation v. Workers Compensation Appeals Board and Dean Fitzpatrick, the issue revolved around whether the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board applied the correct standard when calculating a worker’s permanently disabled rating. The Board had affirmed an administrative law judge’s ruling of 100% permanent disability, based on Labor Code Section 4662.

Upon appeal, the Appellate Court noted that Section 4662 of the law does not provide for permanent total disability separate from Section 4660, which governs how the finding and award of permanent total disability shall be made “in accordance with the fact” as provided in 4662. It annulled the Board’s decision and remanded the issue for further proceedings.

Federal court upholds use of state worker classification test – California

In a blow to the California Truckers Association (CTA), the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal deregulation of the trucking industry does not pre-empt the state agency from applying a common law test, called the Borello test, because the law only pre-empts state rules that are “related to prices, routes, or service.” Named for a 1989 state Supreme Court case, the Borello test is the standard used to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. California Trucking Association v. Su, No. 17-55133

Reasonableness of refusal to accept job considered in nixing TTD – Florida

In Employbridge v. Rodriguez, the 1st District Court of Appeal overturned an award of temporary total disability benefits to an injured worker who refused a job offer because the commute was too long. In this case, a worker and her husband both worked for Employbridge, a staffing service provider. When they received a new assignment in Largo, they moved to Largo from Tampa. A few years later, the worker fell at work and injured her knee. Initially, the company accommodated her work restrictions with a clerical position at their Largo offices. She was then offered a similar position at the Tampa office, but turned it down.

A Judge of Compensation Claims found the commute between Largo and Tampa justified the decision to refuse the position and awarded TTD benefits. However, in a split decision the 1st District Court of Appeals overturned the award.

Worker wins retaliation case for filing a workers’ compensation claim – Michigan

In Mitchell v. Dore & Associates Contracting (D & A), a worker broke his leg in a work-related accident and received benefits. D & A would hire workers for projects and lay them off when the job was complete. Workers believed if they were injured on the job, they’d never be asked to work again.

After the worker recovered, a former supervisor asked him to work on a project. While working he heard his supervisor speaking with the risk manager for D & A. The worker alleges the supervisor said the risk manager no longer wanted Mitchell on the project and he was never recalled to work.

While the Court of Appeals noted that causation between the workers’ comp claim and layoff is difficult to prove, it found that the trial judge had properly kept information about criminal convictions and excused work absences from the jury and upheld the jury verdict that D & A had unlawfully retaliated.

Damages of $873,000 upheld in negligence suit against supervisor – Missouri

While the statute generally immunizes co-employees from civil liability for a workplace injury, if a co-employee engaged in a negligent act that purposefully and dangerously increased the risk of injury to another employee, the suit can proceed. An employee of a staffing agency was working for a manufacturer and operating a lamination machine. He noticed glue on the bottom rollers and notified the lamination line supervisor, who removed a metal grate and allegedly told the worker to clean the bottom rollers with a wet rag. (The company prohibited workers from running the machine without the guard installed, and the machine displayed a warning against operation without it.)

The worker’s thumb was pulled in and crushed and he filed a personal injury suit against the supervisor and the manufacturer of the laminating machine. He settled with the machine manufacturer, and, while the other case was pending, the supervisor died, so a defendant ad litem was then substituted. Based on the jury’s findings and the settlement with the machine manufacturer, the trial judge awarded $873,000 in damages. The Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

Invalid arbitration agreement means discrimination and retaliation suits can proceed – Missouri

In Caldwell v. UniFirst Corp, a worker was diagnosed with lumbar disc protrusions and herniations and given work restrictions, which the company accommodated initially. His doctor imposed more restrictions and his supervisor allegedly objected to a request for time off and repeated requests for accommodations. After surgery, the company did not allow him to return to work, but extended his medical leave, then fired him.

The worker filed suit against his former employer and supervisor, alleging discrimination on the basis of his disability and retaliation for pursuing a comp claim. The defendants moved to compel arbitration, noting that the former worker had signed an employment agreement that included an agreement to arbitrate any employment-related claims.

A trial judge denied the motion to compel, finding that the arbitration agreement was invalid and the Court of Appeals agreed. For an agreement to be enforceable each party must provide something of value to the other – some form of “consideration,” which was lacking in this situation.

Employer must reimburse firm for third-party settlement of over $1 million – Nebraska

In 2008, an explosion at a Conagra Foods Inc. plant in Garner, North Carolina, killed three Conagra employees and injured more than 60 others while the food company was installing a new water heater. The company that provided a contracted engineer to oversee the project, Dallas-based Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., was sued and settled the claims after failing to obtain contractual indemnification from Conagra.

The engineering company sued Conagra and a jury in district court awarded Jacobs the full amount of the settlement payments, $108.9 million. The Supreme Court affirmed, noting the food company’s “negligence was the proximate cause of Jacobs’ damages” stemming from the lawsuits following the explosion.

Untimely claim denied since employer had no knowledge of injury – New York

In Matter of Taylor v Little Angels Head Start, a worker filed a comp claim more than one year after the employer had put her on medical leave. She claimed her bilateral knee condition was caused from walking between the employer’s work sites and the repetitive stair climbing associated with her job duties. A workers’ comp judge awarded benefits, but the Workers’ Compensation Board found she had failed to give her employer timely notice of injury.

The Board can waive the thirty-day notice if notice could not be given, the employer had knowledge of the injury, or the employer is not prejudiced. While the employer knew of the knee condition, she did not tell her employer it was work-related for over a year.

Scheduled loss of use award can be adjusted for prior injuries – New York

In Matter of Genduso v. New York City Department of Education, a worker injured his right knee and filed a comp claim. He had had two previous injuries to his right knee, which resulted in loss of use awards of 20% and 12.5%. An expert opined that there was a 40% loss of use and the judge deducted the prior awards, leading to a 7.5% scheduled loss of use. The Workers’ Compensation Board and Appellate Court affirmed the award.

Worker’s tort claim against insurer for allegedly providing false information to the police can proceed – North Carolina

Although a workers’ compensation insurer generally enjoys the same immunity from tort liability afforded the employer, there are limits to that immunity. In Seguro-Suaraez v. Key Risk Inc. Co., a worker suffered a serious brain injury in a work-related accident and suffers from significant behavioral and memory deficits. While the insurance company found the injuries compensable, it denied a request for an occupational home therapy evaluation. Over a six-month period, the company video-taped the worker, edited nine hours of surveillance to 45 minutes, and showed to a neuropsychologist, who said the worker was exaggerating his symptoms.

The Industrial Commission issued a decision in the workers’ favor and the insurance company conducted an independent medical exam, which determined the symptoms were valid. In spite of this, the company directed its investigator to convince the Lincolnton Police Department to bring criminal charges against the worker – that he was obtaining his workers’ compensation benefits by false pretenses. This led to his arrest and jailing and indictment on 25 counts of obtaining property by false pretenses and one count of insurance fraud. The charges were dismissed after a psychological examination to determine competency to stand trial noted conditions consistent with his documented medical history.

The Court of Appeals upheld a trial court ruling that the worker can pursue malicious prosecution, abuse of process and unfair and deceptive trade practices claims, but found the trial court erred in failing to dismiss the bad faith and civil conspiracy claims.

Return-to-Work notice requirements clarified – Pennsylvania

The Workers’ Compensation Act requires an employer provide a worker with “prompt written notice” when the employer receives medical evidence that the worker is able to return to work in any capacity. Although “prompt” is not defined, the notice must give the worker a reasonable period of time before the employer requests a modification of benefits.

In County of Bucks v. WCAB (LePosa), the worker received a notice of her ability to return to work along with a letter offering her pre-injury position at the same wage, which had no expiration date. When she did not return to work, the county filed for a suspension of benefits. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board said the county was required to prove the worker had received a notice of her ability to return to work before sending her the job offer. The Commonwealth Court disagreed since the offer had no expiration date, noting a notice of ability to work sent with a job offer letter does not, as a matter of law, render the notice not prompt.

Worker with lifetime medical care award must be weaned from opioids – Tennessee

In C.K. Smith Jr. v. Goodall Buildings Inc., an injured worker with an award of lifetime medical care from his employer received high dosages of opioids to manage pain. Several years after the injury, the doctor expressed concern about the possibility of addiction. About the same time, the employer requested a Utilization Review (UR) of the employee’s medications and prescriptions and the UR Board recommended weaning down. The employee then requested a new physician panel, which a trial court approved. However, the Supreme Court’s special workers’ compensation appeals panel reversed that determination, stating that it would violate state code and remanded the case to trial court.

High court finds injury an advancement of preexisting condition and overturns disability award – Tennessee

In Thomas D. Flatt v. West-Tenn Express Inc., a worker fell when a coworker dropped his side of an oil-drip pan, which they were carrying together and claimed to injure his neck and left arm. The worker was in a work-related auto accident one year earlier, but maintained he was fully recovered. The trial court found the new injury was compensable and the impairments did not stem from the auto accident and awarded a 44% permanent partial disability rating.

On appeal, the trucking company had the employee undergo examination by four doctors. Upon reviewing the medical testimony, the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel with the Supreme Court overturned the trial court ruling. It determined this was not a new, distinct injury, but an advancement of a preexisting condition.

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