Archive for the ‘Compensability’ Category

Annals of Compensability: (Lack of) Education Pays

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

Imagine identical injuries to two workers: one is a junior college graduate, the other lacks a high school diploma;one can read and compute fairly well, the other reads at the 8th grade level and performs math at the 6th grade level. The injury involves failed back syndrome, with the injured worker experiencing fairly constant pain and the inability to perform sustained physical work.
In the world of workers comp, the first worker is deemed “employable” and entitled to temporary total benefits, followed (in some states) with a lump sum settlement for permanent loss of function. The second worker, lacking the education and skills to transfer to another job, is awarded permanent total disability benefits. In the two claims involving identical injuries, a marginal education pays.
For many years, Missouri resident Todd Grauberger worked for Atlas Van Lines, moving furniture and household goods. He performed heavy lifting routinely, avoiding physically demanding work only when driving from pick up point A to delivery point B. Ironically, his injury did not involve heavy lifting: in December 2001, he bent over to put padding on a nightstand – something virtually anyone could do – and felt an immediate pain in his back. His herniated disc required surgery. Even after some minor improvements, he continued to suffer from substantial pain and numbness in his legs. He was diagnosed with a phrase that terrifies any injured worker – and any claims adjuster: “failed back syndrome.”
Grauberger filed for permanent total disability benefits. His employer countered with a vocational rehabilitation assessment that concluded – without directly interviewing Grauberger – that he could perform light factory work or perhaps drive a car or truck. But the claimant’s doctor countered that with a failed back and almost no transferable (non-physical) skills, Grauberger was unemployable for any position that he might be qualified to hold. In other words, his only employable asset was the labor of his body and his body was irreparably broken. In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals in Missouri sided with Grauberger and upheld the award of permanent total benefits.
Hiring Conundrum
Employers do not give much thought to transferable skills when they hire new employees. They simply hire people qualified to do the work. Indeed, for jobs requiring sheer physical strength, it is often cheaper to hire the lowest skilled available workers. But workers comp, long the great equalizer, takes a post-injury look at employability. Once maximum medical improvement has been reached, the issue for workers comp is simple: the worker is either employable or not. If employable, benefits come to an end. If there are no transferable skills and no reasonable prospect of employment, the benefits may continue for the lifetime of the worker.
Grauberger will never again have to worry about finding gainful employment. Because he can offer nothing of value to the labor market, and because of his persistent, debilitating pain, he will be supported by workers comp indefinitely. It’s an odd calculus, seemingly rewarding the absence of marketable skills beyond the strength in one’s body. In this Missouri case, limited skills and limited education secure a future well beyond the reach of a failed back and a failing body.

Annals of Compensability: A Tale of Two Blisters

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Back in November we blogged the story of John Pearson, a diabetic whose tight workboots – provided by his Arkansas employer – caused a blister that led directly to diabetic neuropathy. The injury was deemed compensable under workers comp. Today we examine a similar blister saga involving Earl Sterling, a machinist for Eaton Corporation in Mississippi. Like Pearson, Sterling was diabetic, but his is a story with a grim outcome. When it comes to compensability, the devil is definitely in the details.
Once again, the story begins innocently with new boots. Sterling began wearing new steel-toed boots – required by his employer – in June 2008. His feet started throbbing immediately; within a week, a blister had developed. He took a week off, telling his supervisor that he had twisted his ankle: he did not report the blister problem. After the blister popped, Sterling sought treatment from his family doctor. Within three weeks of first putting on the boots, Sterling had developed a high fever and was delirious. During his hospitalization, he developed a staph infection, resulting in the amputation of his leg below the knee. By the end of the year, Sterling had reached maximum medical improvement and had been cleared for seated work.
Work Related?
In July 2008 Sterling filed for workers comp benefits, claiming the blister was the result of wearing the boots. But in the course of his testimony, numerous contradictions and inconsistencies emerged. His initial report only involved a swelling of his feet – nothing about a blister. Hospital records indicate that his diabetes was out of control for at least 90 days prior to hospital admittance. In his testimony, he was unclear about the exact nature of the blister: he stated it was on top of his fourth and fifth toes, but medical records indicated it was between the toes, where a friction blister is less likely to occur.
Given the inconsistencies, the administrative law judge denied the claim. The denial was upheld at the appeals level.
It turns out that Sterling’s family physician may have misdiagnosed – or at least mistreated – the diabetes: while two years prior to the injury, the doctor had given Sterling medications for regulating blood sugar, he mistakenly believed that Sterling’s current blood sugar levels were within normal ranges. They were not. Three physicians testified that the blister was a result of the swollen feet and Sterling’s uncontrolled diabetic condition and was independent of the wearing of steel-toed boots.
“Arising From and In the Course and Scope of Employment”
Thus we have two cases involving diabetes: one in which the co-morbidity leads to a work-related and compensable infection (Pearson), and one where the co-morbidity itself – and not the work-required boots – leads to the infection that ultimately requires an amputation (Sterling). Pearson is able to return to productive employment, supported every step of the way by the robust benefits of the workers comp system. Sterling finds himself without a job and without benefits, literally, without a leg to stand on.
In this tale of two blisters, one has a reasonably happy ending, the other does not. In the annals of compensability, eligibility for comp benefits is – in this particular case, at least – subject to the highly rigorous and presumably objective scrutiny of medical science. Sterling ultimately loses his case because his narrative is full of holes and his devastating condition apparently did not arise from and in the course of his work as a machinist.

Retired Jocks Dig for Gold in the California Hills

Monday, February 25th, 2013

We have long noted how the generous benefit structure in California encourages professional athletes to file claims long after their careers are over. These athletes need not play for teams based in California: just playing a few games in the state over the course of their careers opens the door for generous lump sum payouts and, more important, lifetime medical benefits. There is indeed “gold in them thar hills.”
Marc Lifsher of the Los Angeles Times does a great job summarizing the impact of California comp law on professional athletes. Since the 1980s, $747 million has been paid out to 4,500 players. That is apparently just what’s been paid – the $3/4 billion may not reflect what’s been reserved for future medical payments.
California’s statute is uniquely generous. It allows anyone injured while working in California to file a claim in the state. Even if the worker has been paid under another state’s comp system, the door remains open. Professional athletes may settle out claims for a few hundred thousand dollars, but they may also secure lifetime medical benefits: given the concussed brains and frequent musculoskeletal injuries that are a routine part of professional athletics, the lifetime medical bills may be enormous. Finally, California has a worker-friendly definition of cumulative trauma, so a professional athlete need not prove a specific body part was injured during a game in that state.
Athletic Attorneys
A number of the lawyers specializing in these claims are former athletes. Mel Owens, a former Los Angeles Rams line backer, represents a number of out-of-state athletes filing claims. “California is a last resort for a lot of these guys because they’ve already been cut off in the other states,” he says.
Lifsher describes the situation of journeyman tight end Ernie Conwell, who played for two out-of-state teams, including the New Orleans Saints. During his 11 year career, he underwent 18 surgeries, including 11 knee operations. He filed for comp benefits in Louisiana and received $181,000 to cover career-ending knee surgery in 2006. He also received $195,000 in injury-related benefits as part of the players’s collective bargaining agreement. But the claim in Lousiana only covered his knee injury. So he filed a claim in California to deal with ongoing health problems that affect his arms, legs, muscles, bones and head. A California judge awarded him $161,000 plus future medical benefits. The payer in this case, the New Orleans Saints, has appealed.
Wrong Solution to a Real Problem
There is little question that retired players face formidable physical and mental challenges resulting directly from their athletic careers. But the question on the table is whether California is an appropriate forum for delivering extended benefits for professional athletes. Part of the rationale for continuing this gratuitously generous program is the fact that athletes pay state taxes on their incomes for contests in California. But given the fact that income taxes have nothing whatsoever to do with comp, this is a specious argument. The taxes paid do not support California’s workers comp system.
Ultimately, the solution to the problem of long-term injuries to professional athletes must be removed from California and relocated to where it belongs: in the labor agreements between professional sport teams and their athletes. The first step in this process requires an act by the California legislature to shut off the spigot, so that out-of-state athletes are no longer allowed to file comp cases in the Golden State. Immediately following this, the players will have to put the issue of life-long benefits for retired players on the bargaining table. This may seem obvious to those of us on the outside, but there is a reason why it may not happen: collective bargaining tends to focus on the needs (and greeds?) of today’s players. Once out of the game, players – other than those joining a broadcast network – simply disappear.
As is so often the case, it’s all about the money: money the owners want to preserve as profits; money the current players want in their own pockets. While management and labor are undoubtedly sympathetic to the former players, the latter are out of the limelight, struggling day by day to function with compromised bodies and brains. They paid the price. Someone should step up and negotiate a reasonable settlement. It’s time for this particular form of California scheming to come to an end.

A Fine Line Between Willful Intent and No Fault

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

The severe injuries to a utility lineman in Tennessee delineate the fine line where “no fault” ends and “willful intent” begins. In January 2009, Troy Mitchell and his crew were replacing a forty-foot power pole with a new pole forty-five feet in height. Mitchell was in a bucket lift near the top of the new pole preparing to attach a lightning arrestor when a copper ground wire that he held in his bare hands came into contact with a transformer on the older, charged pole some five feet below. Mitchell received an electrical shock of approximately 7,200 volts. He suffered severe burns and injuries to both hands. Clearly, Mitchell was in the course and scope of employment, but he had removed the safety gloves that would have prevented the injury. So is this a case of no fault coverage or willful disregard of safety rules? Are Mitchell’s injuries compensable?
There is no doubt about the severity of the injuries. Mitchell underwent eight surgeries–five on the left hand and three on the right. Procedures included cleaning the wounds, cutting away dead tissue, and removing healthy skin from Mitchell’s forearms and upper arm to suture into the hands. Following these surgeries, he underwent physical and occupational therapy for ten-months in an effort to reduce the swelling in his hands and increase strength and flexibility. He was also treated for burn injuries to his side. Just over one year after the accident, Mitchell was able to return to work in the same position he held at the time of the accident.
Before considering the compensability issues, let’s take a moment to applaud Mitchell for his gritty recovery and his fierce determination to get back to work. You could hardly ask for a more motivated worker.
An Initial Determination of Compensability
A trial court found the injuries to be compensable. They awarded Mitchell a vocational disability rating of 39% permanent partial disability to the body as a whole–one and one-half times the 26% medical impairment rating to the body as a whole. The court noted that Mitchell is “apparently a tough guy. He’s back at work. He and the doctor worked together to make sure there were no restrictions. This is a profound injury. He has deformity on both of the hands. It’s quite visible.”
In addition to an award of $117,312.00 for permanent partial disability, the trial court granted $23,462.40 in attorney’s fees and $1,669.20 in discretionary costs. (As much as we would like to explore the concept of “permanent partial disability” ratings for people who are able to perform their original jobs, we must set that aside for another day.)
The Appeal
Mitchell’s employer appealed the compensability determination. In Tennessee – as in most states – there is a four-pronged test for willful intent. No one questioned that the first three tests had been met: (1) at the time of the injury the employer had in effect a policy requiring the employee’s use of a particular safety appliance; (2) the employer carried out strict, continuous and bona fide enforcement of the policy; (3) the employee had actual knowledge of the policy, including a knowledge of the danger involved in its violation, through training provided by the employer.
The crux of the matter arises in the fourth test: (4) the employee willfully and intentionally failed or refused to follow the established policy requiring use of the safety appliance. In other words, the sole issue was whether Mitchell’s removal of his gloves while in the performance of his duties was a willful disregard of safety policy.
Mitchell testified that he had worn his protective gloves when lifted in the bucket and when he covered the “hot” lines on the lower pole with rubber blankets and hosing. Having done that, he believed that he was in a “safe zone” and “clear” of the danger five feet below. He then took off his gloves to hammer a metal staple, which was to secure a lightning arrestor into the crossarm of the new, taller pole. Mitchell explained that it was easier to hammer without the gloves and, further, that he “didn’t want to puncture a hole” in the gloves. After removing the gloves, he remembered being struck by a “ball of fire.” He later realized later that the copper ground wire he was handling at the time must have come into contact with the transformer on the lower pole. He further testified that because he had removed his gloves under similar circumstances on previous occasions, he did not believe that he was exposing himself to danger.
On cross-examination, Mitchell acknowledged that the employer’s policy was that “any time from cradle to cradle, which is when the bucket closes, you have to wear your rubber gloves if you’re around anything hot․” He admitted that when he was “around” the hot wires, the rule required him to wear his gloves for safety reasons. He further understood that the employer’s policy required leather gloves as an additional covering to guard against puncturing the rubber gloves. He agreed that his gloves were in perfect condition and that he should have kept them on as he attached the staple. Mitchell conceded that his failure to do so violated the safety rules. When asked whether he could hammer the staples with the gloves on, he responded, “Yes, but it’s hard.”
The cost of replacement gloves was not an issue: the company’s safety coordinator confirmed the gloves were provided by the employer and were immediately replaced when punctured or worn out. As a result, it appears that Mitchell was just trying to save his employer a few bucks by not ruining the gloves!
The Supreme Court of Tennessee determined that Mitchell had indeed willfully disregarded company safety policy and thus was not eligible for benefits under workers compensation.
A Compelling Dissent
Justice Holder dissented from the majority opinion. She noted that Mitchell believed he was in a “safe zone” and was not in danger of electrocution when he removed his rubber gloves. Holder quotes the trial court: “it is plausible that [Mr. Mitchell] believed the pole he was working on was not hot.” Holder goes on to note that although Mitchell’s conduct in this case may rise to the level of negligence or recklessness, the removal of his gloves when he assumed he was in a safe zone should not be deemed willful misconduct.
Mitchell, an experienced lineman, made a judgment that he had protected himself from potential harm by covering the lower power lines with insulated blankets. He removed the gloves to more easily complete the installation process. He made a mistake, he was certainly at fault, but the action, in the opinion of Justice Holder, did not rise to the level of willful misconduct.
This case falls within the perpetual gray zone in which most disputes on compensability are argued. While the majority was technically correct in their determination, and while the law does not discriminate between worthy and unworthy employees, it is difficult not to side with Justice Holder in her dissent: Mitchell is in so many respects an exemplary worker. If the rules of comp could be made to bend toward justice, perhaps they would bend in the direction of this stoic and stalwart man. Unfortunately, that’s not the way this system works.

Policy Wonks, Lend Me Your Ears!

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

The Insider is very much looking forward to the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) annual conference, taking place on February 27-28 in the virtual epicenter of wonkiness, Cambridge MA. There is always much food for thought in these annual gatherings of insurance execs, state officials, policy makers, attorneys, medical specialists, employers and safety/loss control practitioners.
This year’s agenda has zeroed in on the fundamental medicine-related conundrums facing workers comp systems across the country. All of us in workers comp long for insights into the following:
Unnecessary medical care and its impact on treatment guidelines. (Back surgery, anyone?)
Medical price regulation: what are the essential elements of an effective fee schedule? (Beware of the state where the doctors love comp…did someone mention “Connecticut”?)
The Opioid epidemic: treatment protocols involving the generous and prolonged distribution of opioids are destroying lives across the country. Why are so many doctors so clueless about the proper use of pain killers? Whatever happened to “do no harm”?
WCRI’s head honcho, Dr. Richard Victor, will host a discussion on health care policy involving (the presumably liberal) Howard Dean and (the assuredly conservative) Greg Judd. The dialogue might not equal the fireworks of July 4th on the Esplanade, but it might come close. The Insider will be listening closely for any indications of that rarest of phenomena: a common ground.
From Gorilla to ?
Last year, Dr. Victor concluded the conference with a discussion of the “gorilla in the room”: the enormous and perhaps insoluble problem of structural unemployment among the 20 million people who lost jobs in the recent recession. For many of these people, especially those in their 50s and 60s, there is little prospect of returning to jobs with anywhere near the same rate of pay as before. Many will find themselves lost in the new economy, cobbling together part-time employment without benefits, while struggling to hold onto housing where mortgages exceed the value of the home. Tough times and, so far, not much in the way of effective solutions.
This year Dr. Victor will have to find some other animal analogy to glean lessons from history: Giraffe in the closet? Rhino in the den? He tells us that the lesson might have something to do with the first century Ephesians, toward whom St. Paul addressed some rather famous snail mail. While some might find such a teaser a bit obscure and full of religious overtones, the Insider looks forward to the story. Indeed, we look forward to this year’s entire conference with great anticipation. There are few things better for policy wonks – our people! – than listening to the latest research from WCRI. Diligent note-taking will be in order.
If you count yourself among those with wonkish tendencies and you haven’t signed up yet, you’d best jump on it immediately. If you have any questions about the conference, contact Andrew Kenneally at WCRI: 617-661-9274.

Fatal Falls Among Older Workers

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

When Cassandra warned the Trojans about a peculiar looking horse, she was ignored. In a somewhat similar vein, the Insider has predicted potentially dire consequences of an aging workforce: unable to retire, some older workers labor to the breaking point and then might hope to parlay workers comp into the retirement plan of last resort. So far it has not turned out that way. But a new study by Sage Journals confirms some of our concerns about risks among older workers and possibly even explains why fatally injured older workers might not show up on comp radar.
The Sage researchers set out to examine the relationship between fatal falls and age. They focused on the construction industry, which comprises only 8 percent of the American workforce, but generates 50 percent of all fatal falls. The frequency of falls among younger workers (here defined as under 55) was higher, but older workers who fell were more likely to die. (Kudos to Sage for defining older workers as 55+ – as opposed to the fairly meaningless federal standard of 40+.) The greatest risks for fatal falls occurred, not surprisingly, among roofers, iron workers and power line installers. Among roofers, older workers had a fall rate of 60.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers, compared to 23.2 fatalities among younger workers. Older workers were more likely to fall from ladders. In addition, their fatal falls could occur at substantially lower heights than the fatal falls of younger workers.
Where’s Comp?
As we continue to zero in on the problem, the workers comp dimension comes into focus. Fatal falls among older workers were more likely to occur in residential settings – worksites less likely to be overseen by OSHA or state authorities. And fatal falls were more likely to occur among small contractors, many of whom were sole proprietors. The study points out that nearly 40 percent of construction workers 55+ are self employed.
Therein may lie one of the clues to the mystery as to why workers comp costs among older workers have not risen at the rate we once anticipated. Among fatalities, a substantial portion of the workers were independent contractors and thus did not carry workers comp coverage; many states preclude coverage for sole proprietors. Even in states where independent contractors are allowed to enroll in comp, most did not bother, as the cost, often based upon the state’s average industrial wage, is well beyond the means of a part-time, self-employed craftsman.

Case in point: In Massachusetts, a relatively low cost state for comp, the rate for roofers is $26.10 per $100 of payroll; the state average industrial wage is $42,700. A sole proprietor roofer would have to pay over $11,000 to secure the protection of a comp policy, even if his annual billings were less than the average industrial wage.

The Sage study points to a number of factors in the severity of falls among older workers. Over time, we all succumb to the biomechanics of aging: slower reaction times, decreased joint mobility, reduced elasticity of tissues and loss of strength. Based upon my own experience, mix in a little forgetfulness, an occasional lack of coordination, and you have a potentially toxic mix, especially in the context of heights and ladders.
Unbroken Falls
The aging workforce is not about to go away. The Sage researchers point out that older workers – again, 55+ – totalled 17 million in 1998, reached 27.9 million in 2008 and are projected to reach 40 million by 2018. The median age in construction has gone from 34 in 1985 to 41+ in 2009; in the same period, workers 45 to 64 went from 25 percent to 34 percent of the workforce.
Given the absence of strong safety oversight in residential construction, the inevitable aging of the workers who perform residential work and the common use of ladders, we can expect the trend of fatalities among older construction workers to continue. The impact on workers comp is another matter altogether. It appears that many of the aging craftsmen working on our homes are independent contractors. When they fall, there is little or no safety net between them and the cold, hard ground.
Thanks to Julie Ferguson for the heads up on this research.

Annals of the Aging Workforce: An Old Man Takes His Lump(s)

Monday, January 14th, 2013

We have often discussed the disconnect between the roughly 100 year old workers comp system and the realities of today’s workforce. The old system was not designed to handle older – and we do mean older – workers. Today’s case in point is Von Brock, a 77 year old greeter for Walmart in Mississippi. In July 2008 Brock was moving a lawn mower for a customer when the handle fell off, causing him to fall and break his leg. After surgery, one leg was shorter than the other. Brock was assigned a 20 percent disability rating and never returned to work.
Given his permanent total disability, Brock was awarded benefits of $163.67 per week for 450 weeks. He requested and was granted a lump sum settlement which totalled about $75,000, minus what had already been paid, for a revised total of $53,000. Using actuarial tables for life expectancy, the workers comp commission further reduced the lump sum to $32,000 – a discount of 42 percent, compared to the usual 4 percent discount for younger workers. Brock sued, stating that he had already exceeded average life expectancy for white males and was in good health. He alleged that the use of actuarial charts was discriminatory.
The Mississippi court of appeals rejected Brock’s claim, citing Mississippi Code Annotated section 71-3-37(10):

Whenever the [C]ommission determines that it is for the best interests of a person entitled to compensation, the liability of the employer for compensation, or any part thereof as determined by the [C]ommission, may be discharged by the payment of a lump sum equal to the present value of future compensation payments commuted, computed at four percent (4%) true discount compounded annually. The probability of the death of the injured employee or other person entitled to compensation shall be determined in accordance with validated actuarial tables or factors as the [C]ommission finds equitable and consistent with the purposes of the Workers’Compensation Law.[emphasis added in appeals court decision]

The appeals court noted that the language of the law is unambiguous: the commission “shall apply validated actuarial tables…” Hence, despite Brock’s apparent good health and his already beating the prevailing odds on mortality, the lump sum was discounted substantially because of his age.
New Realities of the Working World
The Mississippi statute, like those of other states, does not contemplate the dilemma of a 79 year old disabled worker. Nor do these various statutes take into account the precarious state of the rapidly aging American workforce, where post-employment prospects are exceedingly dim. Retirement is hardly an option for people who lack the substantial resources necessary for retirement. Von Brock continued working because he needed the money; once disabled, he needed workers comp to fill in the gap. Unfortunately, the “mortal coil” of age finally caught up with him: his working days are over.
Even if Brock had prevailed, the nest egg represented by the maximum lump sum settlement would only have covered his expenses for a few years; as it is, he now walks away with a substantially lower amount. While his former employer Walmart continues to offer discounts to bring in the customers, workers comp offers a discount that substantially reduces his ability to survive. Mr. Brock is in the vanguard of a multitude of aging workers in a dire situation. We wish them all the best of luck.

Annals of Aging: Return to Work at 80?

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

As the New Year looms, the 100 year old workers compensation system continues its awkward foray into the 21st century, it encounters problems beyond its original design: the widespread availability of opioids, increasing sophistication in medical interventions, and an aging workforce. Today we examine a formerly inconceivable conundrum: can an 80 year old man be expected to return to work after an injury?
Kenneth Brunner graduated high school in 1949 and worked steadily all his life: From 1951 through 1993 he ran the family dairy farm with help from his wife, an accountant. Brunner raised crops; used a tractor, plow and other farm machines, kept track of feed and each animal’s output. He took milk samples from each cow and sent them for analysis; after receiving reports, he adjusted feed for each animal to maximize output. He supervised two to three individuals on the farm.
From 1954 through 1984 he supplemented his farm income by driving a school bus – work which, in the view of the Ohio workers comp commission, required the ability to work independently and use judgment.
From 1968 through 2000 Brunner also was employed as an insurance adjuster. He estimated crop loss for an insurance company, a job that required using scales, taking samples and writing reports. In 1990, at age 58, he was certified for insurance sales.
In January 2011, at age 77, he was working in a maintenance job, when he tripped on a drain pipe and fell face first onto pavement. His injuries were severe:bilateral frontal bone fracture; fracture lateral wall right maxilla; fracture bilateral paranasal sinuses; closed fracture bilateral nasal bone; open wound of forehead; abrasion face; closed fracture C2 vertebra.
He received workers comp benefits. A couple of years into his recovery, he filed for permanent total benefits (PTD). Brunner was 80 years out and had had enough of working.
Brunner’s treating doctor concluded that he would never work again:

This claimant has an injury that is permanent and for which there is no curative therapy. This claimant has progressively suffered loss of function and has had to endure progressively more pain. The exam above shows that there is so little functional capacity and that the claimant is so affected by his condition and its required care, that there is no capacity for sustained remunerative employment and that there is no reasonable employer that would ever hire the claimant expecting any work capacity.
Based on the examination above, review of documents, and based on sound medical reasoning I find that the allowed physical conditions, independently and by themselves, render the claimant permanently and totally disabled and unfit for all sustained remunerative employment.

Once a Worker, Always a Worker?
The Ohio workers comp commission reviewed Brunner’s claim for PTD benefits. They took into account his age, as well as his resume in determining that he was still capable of working. While most of his living involved physical labor, throughout his working life Brunner had displayed skills that at least theoretically were transferable to sedentary work. As a result, they rejected Brunner’s request for PTD benefits. The commission did not address the likelihood of anyone offering Brunner a sedentary job.
An appeals court upheld the denial of the claim, finding that the commission did not abuse its discretion: (1) in weighing Brunner’s age in assessing the non-medical factors; and (2) in determining that Brunner has some transferable skills.
It appears that Brunner’s longevity worked against him. He labored well into his 70s and displayed unusual fortitude in recovery from serious injuries. Because the premise of PTD payments is protection for disabled workers who are available for work but no longer able to do it, Brunner finds himself ineligible for benefits. In a supreme irony, his ability to work as an older worker precluded the conclusion that he was unable – even at 80 – to continue working.
Brunner’s dilemma is by no means unique. As the workforce ages, as more and more workers continue labor late into their seventies and even 80s, a paradox emerges: the point where one is too old to work recedes into the haze of the future, leaving injured older workers in a gray zone where their permanent injuries may or may not be compensable and where their (theoretical) ability to work mitigates against their being paid not to work.
In the months and years ahead we will see more and more litigation involving the claims of “older” workers with ages far beyond what was contemplated in the original workers comp system. State by state, the system will have to respond, becoming the focal point of economic, social and even psychological forces that are far larger than workers, comp stakeholders and state policy makers combined. This is an evolving narrative of surpassing interest. Stay tuned.

Annals of Compensability: These Boots Ain’t Made for Walking…

Friday, November 16th, 2012

John Pearson was diagnosed in his mid-20s with diabetes and was insulin dependent. About fifteen years after the diagnosis, he was working for an Arkansas temporary placement agency, Worksource, which sent him to a steel fabricator. His temporary employer gave him a pair of steel toe boots and assigned him the task of covering warm steel bundles with blankets. The job required a lot of rapid walking across a large field, as the bundles emerged from the plant at odd intervals. In the course of the day he experienced discomfort in his left foot and at the end of the day he found a blister on his left great toe. The next day he requested a wider pair of boots, but none were available. The employer suggested he buy them, but he could not afford to do so before being paid – and payday was still a couple weeks away.
Two weeks later Pearson was diagnosed with “diabetic neuropathy and cellulitis.” Worksource sent him to another doctor, who diagnosed a diabetic ulcer and cellulitis and placed him on light duty, restricting his standing and walking. (The court is silent on how long Pearson continued to work at the steel fabricator.) Ultimately, surgery was performed on the toe, which fortunately did not require amputation, and Pearson was able to begin working again, albeit with (temporary) restrictions. Pearson took a job in a Waffle House, where he was able to resume full time work. In the meantime, he was faced with lost wages and formidable medical bills.
Proving Compensability
Pearson filed a workers comp claim, which at first was accepted and then denied on appeal to the Arkansas Workers Compensation Commission. The denial was based upon an interpretation of state law:

(4)(A) “Compensable injury” means:
(i) An accidental injury causing internal or external physical harm to the body
or accidental injury to prosthetic appliances, including eyeglasses, contact lenses, or
hearing aids, arising out of and in the course of employment and which requires
medical services or results in disability or death. An injury is “accidental” only if it
is caused by a specific incident and is identifiable by time and place of occurrence;
(ii) An injury causing internal or external physical harm to the body and arising
out of and in the course of employment if it is not caused by a specific incident or is
not identifiable by time and place of occurrence, if the injury is:
(a) Caused by rapid repetitive motion.
[Arkansas Code Annotated section 11-9-102(4)(A) (Supp. 2011)]

The Arkansas Court of Appeals agreed with the commission that the injury did not meet first criteria: there was no specific incident identifiable by time and place. However, the Court found that the injury was caused by “rapid repetitive motion,” applying a two-pronged test that is stunning in its obviousness: did injury involve “repetition” and did it involve “rapidity”?
The “repetitive” part involved walking itself: Pearson walked up and down the field in tight boots, watching for the steel bundles as they emerged from the plant. The rapid part involved his walking briskly to protect the bundles as they appeared. He walked from bundle to bundle, as fast as he could, performing the job as instructed. In doing so, the boots rubbed his toe continuously over the course of the day, resulting in a blister. For most people, a blister is no big deal. For a diabetic, it could lead directly to amputation.
Lessons for management?
It is difficult to draw conclusions from this unusual case. Because Pearson was a temporary employee, the steel company had no awareness of his diabetes and no reason to be aware of it: he was able to perform the work as assigned. Theoretically, they could have done better on Pearson’s request for wider boots, but they had no reason to anticipate a serious problem beyond a bit of discomfort. Pearson himself was probably unaware of the risks involved in wearing the tight boots. He obviously was feeling pressure to earn money and probably thought the discomfort, while painful, was not a serious matter.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this case is Pearson himself: despite a life-altering health problem, he is strongly motivated to work. In the few months described in the court narrative, he tries hard to do what he’s supposed to do and he keeps working as best he can. Given comfortable footwear, Pearson will do just fine.

Presumption Laws: Wide Open Door to Benefits

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

Jimmy Walters worked for the Florida Department of Corrections. In December 2009, he came down with a cold, but continued to work for a week. He suffered from chills and nausea on his days off and then experienced chest pain. He went to a hospital, where he was treated for “heart symptoms” and subsequently diagnosed with myopericarditis and cardiomyopathy. He was hospitalized for several days. He filed a workers comp claim, under the Sec 112.18, the “firefighter’s presumption” which creates a rebuttable presumption of occupational causation for disabling heart disease.
For most workers, there would be no conceivable issue of compensability for flu-caused heart problems, but most workers do not work in the public safety arena and most workers are not protected by presumption laws. The facts of the case were not in dispute: there was a direct causal relationship between Walters’s stomach flu and subsequent heart problems. His initial claim was denied by the state of Florida and by a judge on appeal, who ruled that Walters had not proven that his viral gastroenteritis was an occupational disease or that the exposure was traceable to the workplace.
The District Court of Appeal overturned the ruling and awarded benefits for the treatment of heart disease. The judges noted that the presumption statute shifts the burden of proof from the claimant to the employer: “The state had the burden to prove he did not get the virus at work, and failed to carry its burden.” Some burden! The chain of causality is stark and rather crude: for public safety employees, any heart ailment caused by illness is compensable, unless the employer can trace the exposure to specific, non-work conditions. Where the cause/exposure is unknown – as in most cases – there can be no outcome other than the awarding of benefits.
By facilitating benefits to firefighters and police who may develop cancers or heart desease related to employment, law makers acknowledge the unique exposures for the people who protect us.[Back in 2008, my colleague Julie Ferguson provided the background for presumption laws.] But the generous language of these statutes may open the door to compensability far wider than any prudent legislature would intend.
The Politics of Presumption
In practice, presumption laws may create as many problems as they solve. For stressed taxpayers who ultimately foot the bills, cases of questionable compensability can be shocking: the firefighter with lung cancer who smokes two packs a day, the obese cop with heart disease, and now, the corrections officer with a flu-caused heart problem. Are these truly work related? For most people, the answer would be “no way.” For the public safety employees covered by presumption laws, compensability is a given. Their safety net is woven of much finer cloth than that which protects most people in the working world.