Legal Corner

Workers’ Compensation
ABC test applies only to wage order claims – California

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court issued a groundbreaking decision when it adopted a new legal standard known as the “ABC Test,” making it much more difficult for businesses to classify workers as independent contractors. The Dynamax vs The Superior Court of Los Angeles County case was decided for the purposes of the state’s wage orders, but some speculated it might be applied more broadly.

Recently, in Garcia v. Border Transportation Group, a Court of Appeals held that the new test is limited to claims arising under the California Wage Orders, and that other claims continue to be governed by the prior (and more employer-friendly) standard known as the Borello test. It noted: “Dynamex did not purport to replace the Borello standard in every instance where a worker must be classified as either an independent contractor or an employee for purposes of enforcing California’s labor protections…[The California Supreme Court] did not reject Borello, which articulated a multifactor test for determining employment status under the Worker’s Compensation Act.”

No coverage for injury that occurred before issuance of policy – Florida

An insurance broker scrambled to get a policy in place for an uninsured employer dated the same day of an employee injury without disclosing the incident to the insurance carrier. In Normandy Ins. Co. v. Sorto, an appellate court ruled that there could be no coverage because insurance laws preclude coverage for losses that have already taken place. The court noted agreement to assume a known loss is not insurance. Insurance is to provide protection against risk. One cannot insure against known losses; there is no risk.

Lunch break injury not compensable – Georgia

In Frett v. State Farm Employee Workers’ Comp., an insurance claims associate had a scheduled lunch break and walked to the break room to microwave her lunch, which she intended to eat outside. In the breakroom, she fell in a puddle of water and a manager instructed her to complete an incident report. While an administrative law judge granted benefits, the State Board of Workers’ Compensation reversed and a superior court judge affirmed the denial.

The board found the injury did not arise out of her employment because it occurred while she was on a regularly scheduled break and while she was leaving to attend to “a purely personal matter.” While there was precedent for compensability when a worker is entering or exiting the employer’s property, even during break times, the court said this was a mistake and disapproved of its prior decisions.

Injured employee has right to sue employer under retaliatory discharge statute – Massachusetts

In Bermudez v. Dielectrics, Inc., a worker was placed by a temporary employment agency in a manufacturing facility. She sustained work-related injuries when one of the manufacturer’s employees negligently operated a forklift and several large metal sheets fell on her foot. She received work comp benefits from the employment agency and returned to work at the manufacturer eight weeks later. A few months later, she was hired as a full-time employee at the plant.

Eighteen months later, she filed a third-party action for negligence against the manufacturer and the forklift operator. Two months later she was terminated and she sued.

While a trial judge ruled in favor of the company, an appeals court found that the workers’ compensation law specifically says a worker can initiate a third-party action in addition to receiving benefits through the comp system and that a 1971 amendment eliminated the election of remedies concept (comp remedy or a civil claim). The worker had a right to file her third-party action and she could not be fired for doing so.

Worker on business trip who witnessed killings at a restaurant awarded benefits for PTSD – Michigan

In Dickey v. Delphi Automotive Systems LLC., an employee was at a restaurant in Mexico with clients and workers when he witnessed gunmen kill several people in the restaurant. When he returned to Detroit, he was diagnosed with PTSD. The Commission held it was logical to conclude that one who witnesses a horrific, stressful, and traumatizing event such as a multiple murder could possibly be afflicted with PTSD and that the award of benefits was reasonable. The employer’s examining doctor found that his symptoms were related to the side effects from the medicine he was taking, but the magistrate relied on the opinion of the treating doctors, who were actually increasing the worker’s medications.

Murder of worker by co-worker not work related – Michigan

In Williams v. Park Family Health Care PC, a worker was killed by a co-worker who she previously dated. She had broken off the relationship because he was married and not seeking a divorce. He let himself into the building, killed the worker, set the building on fire, and killed himself.

While the court found the death occurred in the course of employment, it did not arise out of her employment. The feud was personal and not connected to her employment.

Devastating stroke after reaching MMI does not affect permanent total disability benefits – Nebraska

In Krause v. Five Star Quality Care, a housekeeper fell and fractured her right femur. After her surgery she attempted to return to work, but experienced too much pain. About 2.5 years later, she filed a petition in Workers’ Compensation Court seeking temporary and permanent disability benefits. Approximately three weeks later, she suffered a massive stroke that left her incapacitated.

The compensation court, finding that the stroke was unrelated to the work injury or treatment, found she had reached maximum medical improvement prior to her stroke and awarded her permanent total disability benefits (PTD). The company argued that the stroke cut off her entitlement to PTD benefits. The court disagreed, noting that her work-related disability did not cease once she had the stroke.

Treatment guidelines apply to out-of-state providers – New York

In Matter of Gasparro v. Hospice of Dutchess County, a home health aide sustained work-related injuries to her lower back and buttocks while employed in New York and was given a nonscheduled permanent partial disability classification. Ten years later, she moved to Nevada.

Several years later, the workers’ compensation carrier objected to payment of various medical charges from a pain management specialist in Nevada. A workers’ compensation law judge ruled in favor of the medical provider, but the Workers’ Compensation Board reversed and the appellate court agreed.

Although the Board had departed from its prior decisions on the issue, the appellate court found it was rational to require medical treatment be in compliance with the guidelines.

Unreasonable deviation from employment nixes benefits – New York

In Matter of Button v. Button, a farmhand was seriously injured in a vehicular accident as he crossed a road on an employer-owned all-terrain vehicle (ATV) from his employer-provided residence to the farm itself. His residence was across the road from the farm and his girlfriend was moving in that day. He stopped at the house and grabbed a beer and the accident occurred on the way back to the farm.

His comp claim was denied by a judge because he was engaged in a prohibited activity at the time of the accident (drinking) and, therefore, his injuries did not arise out of and in the course of employment. The Board affirmed as did the appellate court, noting there was a verbal warning about drinking on the job and that other employees testified the consumption of alcohol at work was prohibited.

Workers’ Compensation Board must determine if worker is independent contractor – New York

In Findlater v Catering by Michael Schick, Inc., a state appellate court held that a trial court’s finding that a worker was an independent contractor, and not an employee, must be reversed. It found that employment issues must be decided by the Workers’ Compensation Board and the court erred by not holding the matter in abeyance pending a final resolution.

Volunteer can pursue personal injury suit in spite of liability waiver – New York

In Richardson v. Island Harvest, an unpaid volunteer worked as warehouse assistant and signed an agreement, which stipulated he was a volunteer and would not attempt to hold the organization liable for any bodily injuries he suffered in the course of his volunteer activities. He was struck by a forklift being operated by an employee and filed a personal injury suit. While a county Supreme Court Justice granted summary judgment to the organization, an Appellate Court reversed.

“New York courts have long found agreements between an employer and an employee attempting to exonerate the employer from liability for future negligence whether of itself or its employees or limiting its liability on account of such negligence void as against public policy,” the Appellate Division said.

Insurer cannot sue third-party without involvement of injured worker – Pennsylvania

An employee of Reliance Sourcing, Inc, which was insured by The Hartford, was standing in the parking lot of Thrifty Rental Car when she was struck by a rental vehicle. The Hartford paid over $59,000 in medical and wage benefits and sought to sue the responsible parties for damages. The employee did not join in the insurer’s action, did not assign her cause of action to the insurer, and did not seek to recover damages independently.

While the defendants argued The Hartford had no independent ability to commence a subrogation claim directly against them, The Hartford argued it had filed the suit “on behalf of” the employee. In a divided decision, the Supreme Court ruled that absent the injured employee’s assignment or voluntary participation as a plaintiff, the insurer may not enforce its right to subrogation by filing an action directly against the tortfeasor. – The Hartford Insurance Group on behalf of Chunli Chen v. Kafumba Kamara, Thrifty Car Rental and Rental Car Finance Group.

Widow denied benefits for husband’s pancreatic cancer – Tennessee

In Alcoa v. McCroskey, the Supreme Court of Tennessee Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel ruled that a widow failed to prove her husband’s cancer was caused by his occupational exposure to coal tar pitch, affirming the decision of a trial judge. The judge found Alcoa’s expert to be more persuasive than the widow’s expert, who relied upon a single medical article, yet that article expressly noted its evidentiary deficiencies. The employer’s expert testified that the employee possessed recognized risk factors for the development of pancreatic cancer that were wholly unrelated to his work exposure to coal tar pitch.

Department-approved settlement not sufficient to compel treatment – Tennessee

In Hurst v. Claiborne County Hospital and Nursing Home, a paramedic was injured in an ambulance accident and also alleged a psychological injury from an October 2000 incident when she encountered a severely abused infant. The claim was settled, but the agreement only addressed her psychological injury. No reference was made to the ambulance accident.

After the settlement was finalized, she filed a new claim seeking benefits for the injuries incurred in the ambulance accident. She settled the claim in exchange for the payment of permanent partial disability benefits and the promise of payment for future medical directly related to her injuries. The Department of Labor and Workforce Development signed off on the settlement, not a judge. Seven years later, she filed a motion to compel payment for medical care which a trial judge granted.

On appeal, the hospital argued that the judge lacked jurisdiction since there was no court order awarding her a right to medical treatment for her physical injuries. The Supreme Court of Tennessee’s Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel found the version of the Workers’ Compensation Law applicable to the 2001 car accident did not provide any mechanism for the enforcement of a department-approved agreement that had not been approved by a judge.

Worker loses benefits for failure to attend FCE sessions – Virginia

On three occasions over a four-month period of time, an employee cancelled a scheduled (and rescheduled) functional capacity evaluation (FCE) session. The employer filed a request to terminate benefits. Although the worker did appear for a FCE one week after the hearing, the worker took no action in the nearly seven-month period between the time the employer filed the request and the date of the hearing. In DeVaughn v. Fairfax County Public Schools, the Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the Workers’ Compensation Commission that there were no mitigating circumstances excusing her lack of effort and no basis for a finding of good faith.

Drivers failure to chock wheel nixes benefits – Virginia

In Callahan v. Rappahannock Goodwill, an appellate court affirmed a finding by the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission that a truck driver willfully violated safety rules when he failed to chock the wheel on the employer’s truck during a stop and, hence, could not receive benefits for the injuries he sustained. The record supported that the safety rules were communicated through several methods to the driver and the physical evidence supported the finding that the wheels were not chocked.

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