Legal Corner

FMLA
ABA’s summary of 2019 FMLA decisions

Each year, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Federal Labor Standards Legislation Committee publishes a comprehensive report of FMLA decisions handed down by the federal courts in the previous year. This handy report summarizes every FMLA decision from November 1, 2018 through October 31, 2019 in a user-friendly manner.

 

Workers’ Compensation
“Borrowed servant” provisions prevent temporary worker’s tort action against employee – Georgia

In Sprowson v. Villalobos, Waste Pro USA entered into a contract with Labor Ready for providing temporary employees to perform work under Waste Pro’s general or direct supervision. A temporary employee was working on a sanitation truck driven by a Waste Pro employee when he was pinned between the truck and a tree. He received comp benefits from Labor Ready and filed tort action against Waste Pro and the driver of the truck.

A judge dismissed the case against Waste Pro, noting it was barred by the exclusive remedy provisions, but allowed the case against the driver to proceed. The Court of Appeals found that the driver was “an employee of the same employer” and, thus, was protected by the exclusive remedy provisions. The court explained that even if the worker works for a different employer, when he is a “borrowed servant,” he is the co-employee of the borrowing employer’s regular employees, even though temporarily.

 

Case to watch: Worker who died from COVID-19 sues Walmart – Illinois

The family of a Walmart worker who died from complications of COVID-19 is suing the retailer in Estate of Wando Evans vs. Walmart, Inc. Four days after her death, another employee at the Chicago area store died of complications from COVID-19 and other employees exhibited symptoms. The case alleges that the retailer failed to cleanse and sterilize the store, failed to adhere to social distancing guidelines, failed to provide proper PPE, failed to notify employees of known cases, failed to follow OSHA and CDC guidelines, failed to provide employees with soap and wipes, failed to train personnel to minimize threat of COVID-19, failed to monitor employees for symptoms, and hired by phone without verifying they did not have the virus.

 

Additional evidence allowed to support claim of mental injury – Missouri

In Department of Transportation v. Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, a worker for the Department of Transportation (DOT) worked for more than 20 years responding to accident scenes. Her case went through several appeals and ultimately the Supreme Court vacated the finding of compensability, noting that the wrong standard was applied to determine if the work-related stress was “extraordinary and unusual.”

The case was remanded with the directive to review the case against the proper standard, “whether the same or similar actual work events would cause a reasonable highway worker extraordinary and unusual stress.” In turn, the worker filed a motion to submit additional evidence and the DOT filed a request for writ relief, which was denied by the courts.

 

High court denies benefits for injury at doctor’s office – Missouri

In Schoen v. Mid-Missouri Mental Health Ctr., a charge nurse had a reaction to an insecticide that was sprayed around air conditioning units to control ants. The health center sent her to a physician for an evaluation. As she was being escorted by the doctor to a pulmonary function test, the doctor tried to divert a dog and accidentally tripped the nurse. She fell and allegedly sustained permanent injuries to her knees, lower back, hip, and neck, although the physician completed his exam and found she could return to regular duty.

The case made its way to the Supreme Court. Although the employee argued that her tripping injuries were the natural consequence of her cypermethrin exposure, the Court found that the risk of being tripped accidentally was a risk to which she was equally exposed outside of her employment.

 

Future wage replacement benefits denied because of misrepresentation – New York

In Matter of Teabout v. Albany County Sheriff’s Dept., an appellate court confirmed a WCLJ’s and WC Board’s ruling that an employee could not receive future wage replacement benefits because she had misrepresented her work activities and failed to disclose important information to the examining physician. The worker had sustained a foot injury and received a permanent total disability classification. However, while she denied working following the injury, she was running a photography business.

Further, she had denied any psychiatric history prior to her work accident, as well as any family psychiatric history. Based on those denials, the treating physician diagnosed adjustment disorder with a depressed mood that was causally related to her 1997 injuries. However, later the physician received medical records that revealed a strong history of psychiatric issues.

 

Traveling employee rules lead to benefits for traumatic brain injury – New York

In Matter of Wright v. Nelson Tree Serv., an appellate court affirmed a decision by the Workers’ Compensation Board that awarded benefits to a worker who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a motor vehicle accident. The tree service worker was assigned to various locations, sometimes over six hours from his home when he opted to stay at a local hotel for the workweek. He was paid a per diem for food and lodging.

He and his coworkers would drive from the hotel to the same parking lot to pick up a bucket truck and proceed to the designated work site. En route to the parking lot, he was seriously injured. While a WCLJ found the injury was not compensable, the Board reversed and the Appellate Court agreed. It applied the traveling employee exception, where injuries may be compensable even if the employee at the time of the accident was not engaged in the duties of his or her employment, provided that the employee was engaged in a reasonable activity.

 

Traveling employee’s fall in hotel laundry room not compensable – North Carolina

In McSwain v. Industrial Commercial Sales & Serv., LLC, a worker was part of a crew working on a project in California. They finished a day early, but the company opted not to change their flight due to the high cost. On the day off, one worker started a load of laundry then joined his coworkers on the patio for some drinks. When he returned to retrieve his laundry he slipped on a wet spot and fell in the hotel lobby and filed a WC claim.

The Court of Appeals upheld the denial of the claim. While the court noted that when employees are required to stay overnight away from home, they are treated as being within the course of their employment for the duration of the trip “except when a distinct departure on a personal errand” is shown. Doing the laundry was not considered a personal need, such as eating a meal.

 

Court overturns worker’s reinstatement petition – Pennsylvania

In Communication Test Design v. WCAB (Simpson), the Commonwealth Court held that a WCJ erred in granting a worker’s reinstatement petition and awarding unreasonable contest fees. The employer accepted liability for medical bills for an eye laceration. Soon after the company began paying disability benefits, it stopped and denied that the employee suffered a work injury.

The worker argued the company failed to issue a notice that it was stopping its payment of benefits within five days after the last payment of temporary compensation. However, the court found that there was no evidence to prove this and the act provides no remedy for non-compliance. Moreover, the worker had never established disability prior to the filing of the Reinstatement Petition and it was his burden to establish his right to reinstatement. The court noted, the employer not only contested the Reinstatement Petition, but it also proved that the worker did not suffer a disability. Accordingly, the WCJ erred by awarding unreasonable contest fees.

 

Injuries not compensable caused by “Act of God” – Virginia

In Sylvia Martin v. Virginia Beach Schools and Corvel Corp., a school security guard fell when a gust of wind suddenly caused a metal gate, through which she had just passed, to close behind and strike her. The guard, who was on work restrictions from an earlier fall, filed a claim more than four months after the second incident, asserting that she had landed on her left side, injuring her left leg, left hip, ribs, back, neck, left hand, and right hand.

The Workers’ Compensation Commission denied the claim and the appeals court affirmed. Applying the “risk test,” the Commission noted that she did not face a risk that was any greater than the public at large. The fall was caused by a natural wind force which, standing alone, had to be considered an “act of God.”

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Early workplace injuries predictor of frequent filers

Workers injured in the first six months of their employment are more than twice as likely to have three or more lost-time injuries during their duration of employment than other workers, according to a recent study published in the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. For each year employed before the first lost-time injury, the probability of having three or more lost-time injuries decreased by 13%, according to the study.

The study included 7,609 lost-time claims at Johns Hopkins Health System and University from 1994 through 2017. The injuries occurred among 5,906 workers; 84% were health care workers, and the remainder were academic employees. Although only 49 workers (0.83%) had five or more claims, they accounted for 3.5% of claim costs, or $4.8 million. The workers in the study had an average length of employment of 15.7 years.

Other studies have shown that new employee risk of injury is higher than other workers. Earlier research from the Toronto-based Institute for Work & Health (IWH) found that employees in their first month on the job have more than three times the risk for a lost-time injury than workers who have been at their job for more than a year.

Neither study delved into the issue of “why.” Common speculation is that training and mentorship were inadequate or that hiring practices are the root of the problem. It makes sense because newness is the common thread. Workers performing unfamiliar tasks in a new work environment with less knowledge and awareness are at a more significant risk regardless of their age, according to the IWH.

Yet, assumptions should not be made and each company must analyze their own data. Begin by looking at the data on the injuries incurred in the first six months of employment. Was the hiring process rushed or inadequate in anyway? Was there a post-offer physical exam?

Assess the effectiveness of training and acclimation to the job. Were new workers given real-life practice, a clear message about safety, site-specific information, allowed to start in low-risk situations and advance to higher-risk work? While people learn differently, the more they can perform the work, the better they become.

Review the incident investigations to look for commonalities – location, department, job function/procedure, equipment and so on. How effective was the return-to-work experience?

How you intervene depends on what you learn. It may be that you need to shore up your training program, implement a mentorship approach, or alert the supervisor to provide additional oversight so the employee works more safely. If there are “red flags” such as the injured worker immediately hiring a lawyer, conflict with supervisor or other workers, insufficient detail about injury/accident, no witnesses, failure to keep medical appointments, and so on, you should consult your attorney. In most cases, the injuries of new employees are legitimate, but new employees with fraud “red flags” require special attention.

The message to employers is that there is an association between early employment injuries and risks for multiple injuries. Repeat claims are costly. A thorough analysis is an opportunity to develop preventive measures or cut loose a potential serial offender.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and Slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com