Legal Corner

ADA
Employer takes proper steps to win approval of terminating employee taking opioids

In Sloan v. Repacorp, Inc. (S.D. Ohio February 27, 2018), an employee who worked 10% – 20% of his time on heavy machinery was taking both prescription morphine and non-prescription opioids. The company’s handbook requires all employees to notify management if they are taking nonprescription or prescription medications and testing positive for these could result in termination. However, the employee did not inform his supervisors.

After his company learned of his drug use, the employee voluntarily submitted to a drug test and tested positive for hydrocodone, the opiate found in Vicodin. When he was terminated less than two weeks later, he filed suit on charges including disability discrimination and retaliation under the ADA. He alleged he was disabled because of degenerative disc disease and arthritis in his neck and back and fired because of his disability.

The company, however, had made a good faith effort to involve him in the interactive process. It asked him to consult with his doctor to see if there were alternative medications or treatments for his pain that did not include opiates, but he refused. The court noted that he was not fired because he was a direct threat to himself or others, but because he failed to participate in the interactive process. Thus, he impeded the company’s ability to investigate the extent of his disability and determine whether a non-opiate medication could reasonably accommodate his disability.

This decision serves as a reminder that individualized assessments should always be made and an employee’s lack of cooperation during the interactive process is often a strong defense to both ADA discrimination and retaliation claims.


Workers’ Compensation
Statute of limitations for temporary disability awards clarified – California

In County of San Diego v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board and Kyle Pike, a deputy sheriff suffered an injury to his right shoulder on July 31, 2010, and received benefits for five years up to July 31, 2015. He sought to reopen the petition and receive temporary disability benefits and a WCJ awarded the benefits and the Board agreed.

However, a dissenting panel member argued that the statute does not permit an award of temporary disability more than five years after the date of the injury. The Court of Appeal, 4th Appellate District, agreed, noting the language of the statute clearly indicates that temporary disability payments cannot be awarded for periods of disability occurring more than five years after the date of the underlying injury.

Interactive process and accommodation required after injury – California

In Bolanos v. Priority Business Services, an injured worker returned to work with restrictions and suffered a hernia while he was working in the office. He settled a workers’ comp claim for the hernia, but the company told him they could no longer accommodate him. He filed suit alleging disability discrimination and retaliation and a jury awarded him almost $40,000 and attorney fees of $231,470.50, plus $10,697.08 in costs.

The company argued that it could not show it engaged in the interactive process and reasonably accommodated the employee because a trial judge disallowed evidence of the workers’ compensation claim and settlement from consideration by the jury. However, the Court of Appeals found the company was not prejudiced by the trial judge’s ruling.

Implanted surgical hardware does not qualify as continued remedial care – Florida

Under Florida statutes, workers have two years from date of injury to file a worker’s compensation claim, but the time can be extended to one year after the date that the employer last paid indemnity benefits or furnished remedial care. In Ring Power Corp. v. Murphy, an employee who injured his back underwent spinal surgery and doctors used rods and screws to stabilize his spine while the bone grew back together.

A judge determined that a petition for benefits seeking additional medical treatment was not time barred because the company was continuously furnishing remedial treatment as long as the rods and screws remained within the worker’s body. The 1st District Court of Appeal disagreed noting that the pins and screws no longer served a purpose.

Worker’s suspected intoxication not factor when insurer fails to meet 120-day deadline to deny compensability – Florida

In Edward Paradise v. Neptune Fish Market/RetailFirst Insurance Co., an employee fell and fractured his hip while emptying the garbage. The employer was informed of the injury but did not report it to the insurer. The injury was complicated by infections and, ultimately, five surgeries were required. Ten months after the accident, the worker filed the first notice of the injury and the insurer elected to pay and investigate under Florida’s 120-day rule. The insurer did not file a notice denying compensability of the workplace injuries because of intoxication until almost 16 months after the injury. The court noted the failure to meet the 120-day deadline to deny the compensability of an injury claim waived the insurer’s intoxicated-worker rights.

Appellate court misconstrued “arising out of employment” requirement – Georgia

In Cartersville City Schools v. Johnson, a school teacher was denied benefits by the State Board of Workers’ Compensation’s Appellate Division for a fall incurred while she was teaching a fifth-grade class because the act of turning and walking was not a risk unique to her work. Upon appeal, the Court of Appeals noted, “For an accidental injury to arise out of the employment there must be some causal connection between the conditions under which the employee worked and the injury which (s)he received.”

It said the Appellate Division overlooked the proximate cause requirement and focused on the concept of equal exposure – that the teacher could have fallen outside of work while walking and turning, as she did while she was at work. Therefore, it erroneously concluded her injury resulted from an idiopathic fall and was not compensable. Although an employee could theoretically be exposed to a hazard outside of work that mirrors a risk faced while at work, it does not mean an injury resulting from the workplace hazard is non-compensable.

No death benefits for family in asbestos claim – Georgia

In Davis v. Louisiana-Pacific Corp., an employee, who worked at a Louisiana-Pacific facility in Alabama, moved to Georgia after leaving his position. Several years later, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma and died. His family filed a claim for death benefits arguing that, although he was last exposed to asbestos in Alabama, his diagnosis and death occurred in Georgia.

While the court acknowledged that there was not a work-related “injury” until he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, the “accident” that resulted in his condition was his exposure to asbestos while he was employed in Alabama. Had the worker’s contract been executed in Georgia he would have been eligible for benefits, but it was made in Alabama and, therefore, the state did not have jurisdiction over the claim.

Children can sue over birth defects related to father’s on-the-job exposure – Illinois

The exclusive remedy afforded by worker’s comp does not apply to two teenagers who suffered birth defects as a result of their fathers’ workplace exposure to toxins because they were seeking damages for their own injuries, not their fathers’ noted the 1st District Court in reversing the Circuit Court of Cook County. The fathers’ employer, Motorola, had argued successfully to the Circuit Court that the birth defects were derivative of a work-related injury to their fathers’ reproductive systems. However, upon appeal, the 1st District Court noted the children weren’t employees of Motorola, and they were suing over their own injuries, not their fathers’.

Failure of company to get out-of-state coverage nixes death claim – Illinois

In Hartford Underwriters Insurance Co. v. Worldwide Transportation Shipping Co., the Iowa-based shipping company hired an Illinois truck driver who only worked in Illinois. After he died from a work-related injury, his widow filed an Application for Adjustment of Claim against Worldwide under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. Since the company only had workers’ comp coverage in Iowa at the time of the fatal accident and none of the insurer’s conduct suggested that coverage extended to out-of-state drivers, the insurer was not liable for death benefits.

Dismissal of tort claims against co-workers upheld – Missouri

Four cases that occurred during the period (2005 – 2012) when the comp law did not extend an employer’s immunity to co-workers were recently considered by the Supreme Court and the dismissal of the tort claims upheld. “For purposes of determining whether a co-employee can be liable for an employee’s injury between 2005 and 2012, the co-employee’s negligence is assumed,” the court said. The focus needs to be on whether the breached duty was part of the employer’s duty to protect employees from foreseeable risks in the workplace.

In Conner vs. Ogletree and Kidwell, Conner suffered an electrical shock when he came in contact with a live power line. The Supreme Court said the failure of his co-workers to ensure that the line was de-energized was a breach of the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace. In Evans vs. Wilson and Barrett, the court said that a worker’s negligent operation of a forklift was also a breach of his employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace.

In McComb v. Nofus, the court said the decision of two supervisory employees to send a courier out into a dangerous winter storm was not a breach of any personal duty owed to McComb. In Fogerty v. Armstrong, the court said a worker’s misuse of a front loader was a breach of the employer’s duty of care.

Average weekly wage includes compensation, value of meals and lodging for former pro athlete – Nebraska

Nebraska’s statute states that wages do not include “board, lodging, or similar advantages received from the employer, unless the money value of such advantages shall have been fixed by the parties at the time of hiring.” In Foster-Rettig v. Indoor Football Operating, a professional indoor football player received $225 for each game he played in, plus an additional $25 per game if the team won or played well. The team also paid for him stay at a particular hotel in Omaha seven days a week during the football season and he got 21 meal vouchers for local restaurants.

His career was ended by a back injury and he filed a comp claim. At trial, he provided expert evidence about the value of the hotel room and meals. The Court of Appeals agreed with the compensation court that benefits should be based on an average weekly wage of $903.25, including an average salary of $231.25 per week from playing in games, plus an average of $350 per week for lodging and $320 per week for his meals.

Landlord liable for labor law claim even if tenant contracted for work without their knowledge – New York

In Gonzalez v. 1225 Ogden Deli Grocery Corp. a deli leased retail space, hired a painter to add a decoration to its sign, and set up the A-frame ladder. The painter fell from the ladder and filed a Labor Law action against the landlord for his injuries. Under Section 240(1), property owners have absolute liability for failure to protect workers from elevation-related risk and Section 241(6) imposes a non-delegable duty on owners to comply with the safety regulations of the code. Even if the deli contracted with the painter without the knowledge of the landlord, the landlord was liable, according to the Appellate Court. The landlord only presented unsworn statements from the deli owner and a deli worker and hearsay statements cannot defeat summary judgment if they are the only evidence.

Tort claim against co-employee can proceed – New York

In Siegel v. Garibaldi, an employee who was walking to the campus safety office to clock out was struck by a car driven by a co-worker, who was heading home. The injured worker received comp benefits and filed a tort action against his co-worker. While the appellate court noted that the law ordinarily limits a worker to a recovery of workers’ compensation benefits if he is injured by a co-worker, in this case, the driver was no longer acting within the scope of his employment. The road was open to the public and the risk of being struck in a crosswalk is a common risk shared by general members of the public.

Expert medical evidence is required to establish occupational disease claim – North Carolina

In Briggs v. Debbie’s Staffing, an employee operated a large mixing machine at a refractory manufacturer. Employees were required to wear respiratory protection masks because the process produced a lot of dust. After the employee was fired for attendance-related issues, he filed a workers’ compensation claim, asserting chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma. While a physician initially opined that the asthma was likely caused by the working conditions, he did not know the worker was a smoker and had worn a respirator mask and testified this might affect his opinion on causation.

The employee argued that his own testimony about the working conditions were sufficient to establish a claim, but the appellate court noted only an expert is competent to opine as to the cause of the injury and present medical evidence that the employment conditions placed the employee at a greater risk than members of the general public.

Slip and fall on shuttle bus compensable – Pennsylvania

In US Airways Inc. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, a flight attendant was trying to place her luggage on the racks in a shuttle bus that was taking her from the airport to an employee parking lot, when she slipped on water on the floor and injured her foot. The airline argued that the incident did not take place on the airline’s property and that the shuttlebus was part of her commute to work, since it did not own the shuttlebus and did not require its employees to park in the parking lot. The Commonwealth Court ruled that her commute ended at the parking lot and work began on the shuttle, thus, her injury was compensable.

Worker was not permanently and totally disabled – Tennessee

For almost twenty years, the employee worked in a factory of General Motors. He suffered several on-the-job injuries and his last injury required surgery on his right shoulder. When he was cleared to return to work with restrictions, GM could not accommodate him and he never returned to work, nor sought other work. He filed a request for permanent total disability benefits, asserting that he had no vocational opportunities.

Two qualifying experts expressed conflicting opinions as to his vocational abilities and the employee said he did not consider himself unable to work, although not in the type of positions he had held in the past. The Supreme Court’s Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel ruled against the benefits, noting it’s the trial court’s discretion to accept the testimony of one expert over another and to consider an injured employee’s testimony concerning his abilities and limitations.

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

Long-term opioid prescriptions greatly increase the duration of temporary disability

The Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) examined the impact of opioid prescriptions on the duration of temporary disability benefits for workers with lower back injuries. The conclusion: long-term opioid prescriptions lead to temporary disability durations more than three times longer than claims without opioid prescriptions. Long-term is defined as having prescriptions within the first three months after an injury and three or more filled opioid prescriptions between the 7th and 12th months after an injury.

According to the study, The Impact of Opioid Prescriptions on Duration of Temporary Disability, a small number of opioid prescriptions, over a short period of time, did not lengthen temporary disability.

Although medical practice guidelines often advise against routine use of opioids for the treatment of nonsurgical low back injuries, opioid prescribing in these cases is still common in a number of states. Workers living in high-prescription areas were more likely to receive opioid prescriptions than workers who lived in low-prescription areas.

The study examined data for injuries between 2008 and 2013 where workers had more than seven days of lost work time in 28 states. The states, which represent over 80 percent of benefits paid, were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

States with the highest average opioid prescribing rates:

  • Louisiana: 87 percent
  • Alabama: 85 percent
  • North Carolina: 82 percent
  • Tennessee: 82 percent

States with the highest average longer-term opioid prescribing rate:

  • Louisiana: 30 percent
  • South Carolina: 18 percent
  • Georgia: 17 percent
  • North Carolina: 16 percent

Employer takeaway: Working with physicians following evidenced-based guidelines helps ensure the proper treatment for injured workers. Moreover, few employers have escaped the pain of the opioid crisis. Educating workers as to the dangers of prescription opioids, as well as identifying workers who have an addiction and providing the appropriate assistance, is key.

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

Things you should know

NCCI report: National Medicare Set Asides and Workers Compensation: 2018 Update

A new report from the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), Medicare Set Asides and Workers Compensation: 2018 Update analyzes trends in the submission of Medicare set-asides (MSA) to understand the cost drivers and the medical care of workers injured on the job who are or are likely to become eligible for Medicare based on 11,500 Medicare set-asides.

About 64% of claimants are eligible for Medicare, not because of age but because they have been on Social Security Disability for at least two years. Another 29% of claimants are eligible due to age, and about 7% are likely to become eligible within 30 months. Overall MSAs represent more than 40% of total submitted workers’ compensation settlement costs. More than half of MSA’s involve an attorney.

Estimated future drug costs are the main reason that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are requiring increases of Medicare set-aside amounts.

New CPWR database shows 42 percent of construction worker deaths involve falls

In a 33-year period, falls accounted for nearly half of all construction worker deaths and more than half of the workers killed lacked access to fall protection mostly in the residential building, roofing, siding and sheet metal sectors, according to the Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR). The new searchable database includes reports of fatality reports for 768 construction industry fatalities.

ISHN’s annual hand protection update

Industrial Safety and Hygiene News has released its annual hand protection update.

First blood test for concussions approved by FDA

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved a blood test to evaluate and diagnose concussions, the first of its kind. This new kind of testing is quick and may reduce reliance on CT scans which can expose patients to radiation.

Up to 21 percent of asthma-related deaths may be from on-the-job exposures: CDC report

Occupational exposures may have contributed to 11 percent to 21 percent of all asthma-related deaths among 15- to 64-year-olds between 1999 and 2016, according to a recently released report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Musculoskeletal disorders widespread among plastic surgeons

Nearly 80 percent of plastic surgeons experience work-related musculoskeletal issues or injuries, according to the results of a recently conducted survey of practitioners.

Cyber incidents top list of ten highest threats to U.S. businesses

Allianz’s Risk Barometer 2018 has released its annual survey of risk experts from 80 countries. For the first time, the No. 1 risk in the U.S. (with 45% of the vote) is cyber incidents (moving up from No. 2 last year), with business interruption the largest loss driver after a cyber incident.

Depression and fatigue increase risk of work-related injuries in women: report

A new study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that women who suffer from depression, anxiety and fatigue are more likely to be injured at work. Nearly 60 percent of women, as compared to 33 percent of men, reported that they experienced a behavioral health condition before they were injured.

State News

Massachusetts

Nebraska

  • The Supreme Court has signed off on changes to Rule 15: Records Checked Out governing the procedures for filing workers’ compensation appeals. It also adopted changes to non-adjudicatory Rules 26, 47 and Addendum 2. View amendments.

New York

Pennsylvania

  • A bill that would have created a drug formulary for injured workers failed to pass the House ending in a split 98-98 vote.

Tennessee

  • The Bureau of Workers’ Compensation has produced a bullet-point summary to help explain the changes to the medical fee schedule rules, which are now in effect.

Wisconsin

  • Employers now subject to tort claims for temp workers’ injuries (see Legal Corner).

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

Trends in combatting abuse and fraud in Workers’ Compensation

Fraud or abuse that might not reach the legal requirements for criminal sanctions happens in all aspects of the Workers’ Comp system. There’s employee fraud, employer fraud, health provider fraud, attorney fraud, and even insurer and claims adjuster fraud. The good news is that technology is making it easier to detect and many states have strengthened their laws to prevent fraud. In this article, we’ll look at employee fraud and health provider fraud.

Employee fraud

It’s important to recognize that only 1 – 2% of employee injuries are considered fraudulent and that injured employees can be scared and overwhelmed by the system and need the support and guidance of the employer to navigate to a quick recovery. But when fraud or abuse occurs it can be hard to detect and lead to unnecessary costs.

The most common types of employee fraud are faking injury claims, exaggerating injury or illness, claims for injuries incurred outside of work, failing to report earned wages while receiving temporary disability benefits, and prescription fraud, especially related to opioids. Malingering can also complicate an already complex claim and postemployment claims such as those involving cumulative trauma (CT) can be difficult for the employer to control.

Two recent phenomenon driving employees to cheat the system are expensive health care and long-term unemployment. While the evidence is anecdotal, high deductible health insurance plans, the ever-increasing costs of co-pays, and the growing uncertainty of coverage can incentivize the use of workers’ comp. In most cases, workers will have all medical costs covered and receive indemnity payments. Despite continued job growth and low unemployment, long-term unemployment persists among certain workers, and those having a tough time finding jobs that match their skill set or pay well may look to postemployment comp claims for much needed income.

There are many “red flags” that can help employers identify questionable claims and these should immediately be shared with the claims adjuster. However, proving that an injured worker is engaged in personal physical activities inconsistent with the alleged disability can be difficult. Today, a combination of the traditional approaches to fraud detection and technology make it easier and more affordable.

Here are eight things that employers can do:

  1. Have the injured worker put in writing the facts of the injury.
  2. Do a thorough investigation of the incident, including interviewing witnesses, taking pictures, documenting PPE in use, and so on.
  3. Make your employees comfortable with reporting suspected fraud and train supervisors in monitoring “workplace chatter.” Often, co-workers may have information or a sense that a co-worker is abusing the system.
  4. Use surveillance cameras in offices, parking lots, warehouses, etc. According to an Employers Holdings, Inc. survey, 24% of small businesses have installed surveillance cameras on their property. There was a widely publicized YouTube video of a Florida woman hitting herself on the head with a sprinkler head that had fallen on her desk and then claiming a workplace injury.
  5. Have a relationship with a trusted, competent occupational physician who understands your business and can foster the confidence of employees. This partnership will help identify possible fraudulent cases and control prescription abuse. Prescription fraud is easily mitigated by a doctor’s ability to check a prescription-monitoring data base, which 49 states now have in place.
  6. Monitor social media. It’s positively amazing what people will post on social media. If fraud is suspected, investigators can use software to search upwards of 200 social media sites. Employers need to be cautious about how they employ social media tools to investigate their employees’ behaviors and be sure that the evidence is admissible in court. While social media has been allowed in some court cases, this area of law is still in its infancy. Even if the admissibility of social media is questionable, it provides an indication that video surveillance, which is more likely to be admissible because it includes a time stamp, is warranted.
  7. Consider smart device data. In recent cases, police obtained a search warrant for the data from the cardiac pacing device in an arson investigation, a fitness tracker was used to discredit an alleged assault, and an Amazon Echo was accessed (unsuccessfully) as a witness to a murder. This area of law is largely untested, but should not be overlooked.
  8. Check job applicants carefully. Criminal backgrounds and a history of suspicious injury claims can be good predictors of potential fraud.

Physician fraud

For the dishonest physician, workers’ comp is fertile ground. Common examples of fraud include: submitting claims for services not provided, duplicate billing, upcoding or submitting claims for services with higher rates, unbundling or submitting claims for several services that should have been one claim, ordering excessive treatment or supplies, dispensing drugs for personal gain, receiving kickbacks in exchange for directing patients to other service providers, and operating “medical mills” with others who lack required credentials.

Some states such as California have enacted laws to aggressively pursue fraud. Since A.B. 1244, which requires the division’s administrative director to suspend any medical provider, physician or practitioner from participating in the workers’ comp system in cases that involve criminal activity or inability to perform duties safely, among other requirements went into effect Jan. 1, 2017, over 170 providers have been suspended.

To combat physician fraud, employers can:

  1. Have a relationship with trusted, competent occupational physicians who understand your business and can develop confident relationships with your employees.
  2. Vet independent medical reviews for quality. Complex claims that involve comorbidities can be feeding ground for exaggeration and malingering and often involve legal representation. According to a recent white paper by the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. a quality independent medical examiner (IME) can help mitigate losses. It’s important to hold an IME to a high standard.
  3. Report the suspected fraud.

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