Posts Tagged ‘case law’

Annals of Compensability: Violence as a “Normal” Working Condition

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Here is a very interesting case from Pennsylvania, where the definition of “normal working conditions” is fraught with terror (and which, as a result, closes the door to comp compensability while potentially opening another to lawsuits). But in our excitement to discuss this intriguing case, we get ahead of ourselves.
Greg Kochanowicz worked as a manager for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. That might sound like an enforcement job, but ironically, his job was selling liquor from a retail outlet. On April 28, 2008, a masked man entered the store, pointed two guns at Greg and a co-worker, and forced them to empty the safe and cash register. The robber prodded the back of Greg’s head with one of the guns. After getting the cash, the robber used duct tape to tie Greg and his co-worker to chairs in the office. There was no physical harm – just the threat of violence if Greg did not cooperate.
Following this incident, Greg suffered from anxiety, depression and flashbacks. He was too traumatized to return to work. Diagnosed with PTSD, he collected temporary total benefits under workers comp for what Pennsylvania calls a “psychic” injury. (It is worth noting that in 1981 Greg’s brother was stabbed to death in a robbery, an incident for which Greg received no counseling or support.)
Abnormal Justice
Greg’s employer appealed the WCJ ruling. A split panel of judges (4-3) reversed the finding of compensability on the basis that armed robberies were a “normal” working condition – and only “abnormal” working conditions lead to compensability for PTSD/”psychic” injuries. That’s a very interesting notion, indeed.
In its reversal, the appeals court noted that robberies were quite common among the Liquor Control Board stores: in the five county area, there were 99 robberies since 2002, an average of one a month. In addition, employees were acutely aware of the risks. They received a written pamphlet entitled “Things you should know about armed robbery.” Greg had read the booklet and received training related to it. In fact, he followed the employer’s written protocol to the letter, thereby avoiding bodily harm to himself and his co-worker.
The appeals court is saying that armed robberies should come as no surprise to liquor board employees. They have been forewarned. And in the view of a majority of the judges, forewarned is foreclosed: there can be no compensability for a psychic injury as a result of normal working conditions. (Had Greg been shot, however, he would have had a compensable injury.)
OSHA to the Rescue?
The appeals court states that having a gun pressed to the back of the head is a “normal” working condition. If this is indeed true, then the employer has put employees in a workplace that is fraught with risk. This is something employers are not allowed to do.
Here is OSHA’s General Duty Clause:

“Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

If the court is correct, if armed robberies are a “normal” working condition, then the employer has failed to eliminate an unacceptable risk. By leaving unarmed employees in high risk areas, they are out of compliance with OSHA standards. Given their knowledge of the likelihood of robberies, they should place armed guards in each store, particularly in evening hours. Their failure to protect employees from an all-too-routine hazard is unacceptable and may be grounds for lawsuits.
This case is wending its way toward the PA Supreme Court, where the arguments of the dissenting judges, led by Renee Cohn Jubelirer, are likely to prevail. Greg will probably qualify once again for workers comp. Yes, he received training in violence; he was well aware of the risks in his job; he even handled the situation with exemplary composure. But there is nothing normal about having a gun pressed into the back of your head, unless you are an actor taping a cop show for cable TV.

Annals of Compensability: A Bitter-Sweet Case of Chemical Sensitivity

Monday, September 19th, 2011

We know that there are individuals with extreme sensitivity to chemicals. What we don’t know, in many cases, is whether exposure to chemicals in the workplace produces a compensable incident under workers comp. As with work-related illnesses (e.g., cancer possibly caused by workplace carcinogens), it can be difficult to prove that the workplace exposure is the predominant cause of the disability.
For a little over a year in mid-1990s, Deborah Chriestenson worked for Russell Stover Candies in Iola, Kansas. She had been diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivity in 1986. She worked as a plant nurse, safety coordinator, and workers compensation benefits coordinator. Her office was located across the hall from a laundry facility. Chriestensen contends that she could smell bleach on a regular basis in her office. She claimed to have suffered respiratory symptoms as well as increasing headaches as a result of this exposure.
Chriestenson also claims she was occasionally exposed to methyl bromide fumes emanating from a room where nuts were fumigated. In addition, she claims that she was exposed to fumes from pesticides, truck exhaust, paint, and anhydrous ammonia at various times during her employment at Russell Stover. [As for the future eating of chocolate nut clusters from Russell Stover or any other manufacturer, I leave it to the reader to perform his/her own risk analysis…]
Soon after her termination from the company, Chriestenson filed a workers comp claim. She received temporary total disability benefits. Her claim wended its way slowly through the Kansas system, until 2006, 11 years after she left the company, a split panel of comp judges awarded her permanent total disability (PTD) benefits.
There were two key elements supporting of Chriestenson’s claim: her own testimony and that of an expert witness, Dr. Grace Ziem, who specializes in chemical sensitivity. (Dr. Ziem’s website is full of red flags for toxic exposures.) Dr. Ziem’s testimony was key: without her connecting Chriestensen’s problems directly to the workplace, there would be no comp claim.
Evidence-Based Medicine
The Kansas Court of Appeals has reversed the decision to award Chriestenson PTD benefits. While they recognize Dr. Ziem’s skills as a medical provider, they question her credentials to connect Chriestenson’s problems to the workplace. For one thing, Chriestenson is a lifelong smoker; Dr. Ziem casually dismisses any connection between smoking and Chriestenson’s respitory problems. In addition, Dr. Ziem did not bother to examine the medical records pertaining to treatment of Chriestenson in the days and months immediately following her filing of a comp claim. Finally, the Kansas court calls into question Dr. Ziem’s methods, citing court rulings in two other cases where her testimony was rejected outright.
In Georgia:
Our research has revealed that several courts across the United States have also had difficulty with causation opinions expressed by Dr. Ziem in chemical sensitivity cases. In Mason v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 283 Ga. 271, 658 S.E.2d 603 (2008), Dr. Ziem was not permitted to testify on causation in an civil lawsuit against a manufacturer and seller of a floor covering product. The Georgia Supreme Court upheld a trial court’s determination that “Dr. Ziem’s methods [are] based only on her own experience and opinions, without any support in published scientific journals or any reliable techniques for discerning the behaviors and effects of the chemicals contained” in the floor covering product. 283 Ga. at 279.
In Tennessee:
Likewise, in Wynacht v. Beckman Instruments, Inc., 113 F.Supp.2d 1205 (E.D. Tenn. 2000), the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee did not allow Dr. Ziem to offer an opinion on causation in a product liability case arising out of alleged exposure to chemicals in the workplace. Although the court found her qualified to diagnose medical conditions and treat patients, it found that “[t]he ability to diagnose medical conditions is not remotely the same . . . as the ability to deduce, delineate, and describe, in a scientifically reliable manner, the causes of those medical conditions.”
Given her prior history, the lack of compelling evidence in the workplace exposure and her ongoing smoking, Chriestenson is unable to prove a definitive connection between workplace exposures and her current inability to work. It is a sad case, for sure, and it is entirely possible that work contributed in some degree to her current dilemma. But the burden of proof in this type of claim is difficult, often impossible, to achieve. For all her expertise in treating chemical sensitivity, Dr. Ziem has fallen short in her effort to establish herself as a credible expert witness – at least in Georgia, Tennessee and Kansas.

Annals of Compensability: A Pre-Existing Condition

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

We first encountered Montana workers comp judge James Jeremiah Shea last year, when he ruled that Brock Hopkins, a pot-smoking handyman, was eligible for workers comp after being mauled by a bear at Great Bear Adventures. In his ruling, Judge Shea managed to invoke the movie, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, to wit:

“It is not as if this attack occurred when Hopkins inexplicably wandered into the grizzly pen while searching for the nearest White Castle. Hopkins was attacked while performing a job Kilpatrick had paid him to do – feeding grizzly bears.”

In a more recent case, Judge Shea was confronted with the claim of Bruce Martin, a carpenter seeking treatment for what he insisted was a work-related back problem. While there is no reason to believe that Martin was partaking of Brock Hopkins’s favorite recreational drug, he did manage to present a narrative that consistently conflicted with the perceptions of virtually everyone else involved: his employer, Jesse Chase, co-worker Barry Hollander, and claims adjuster Michele Fairclough.
Martin claimed he injured his back while stripping the plastic protective barrier off of metal siding – a relatively light-duty task. But in walking off the job that morning, he stated to his boss that his sciatica was acting up and that it was not work related. Only after going to an Urgent Care clinic did he claim that the injury happened at work. Why? We can assume that he wanted his employer to pick up the tab through workers comp.
My Aching Back
Martin’s history of back problems began in the early 1990s, following a motor vehicle accident. He treated sporadically with Dr. Aumann, a chiropractor. Dr. Aumann, sympathetic to his long-term patient, thought that “on a more- probable-than-not” basis that Martin’s injury was the result of the work accident he described. Unfortunately for Martin, no one else bought his story, even as the story itself changed over time.
Judge Shea wrote:

Dr. Aumann identified objective medical findings to support Martin’s claim of lumbar spine problems. However, Martin has not established that this injury occurred because of a specific event on a single day or during a single shift. I did not find Martin’s testimony credible. Neither Hollander, who was working alongside Martin, nor Martin’s employer Chase could corroborate Martin’s account of injuring his back on June 29, 2010…

It is not altogether impossible to feel a little sympathy for Martin: he has a real back problem. He is experiencing legitimate pain. He has difficulty performing physical work and is not trained to do anything else. He desperately needs income. Martin is like a lot of other American workers in these troubled times, living day-to-day on the edge of disaster. While we can understand why he would try to stretch the facts to fit the workers comp mold, we acknowledge that he was wrong to do it. As Judge Shea concluded, Martin was not injured as the result of an industrial accident. Given that definitive ruling, Martin, bad back and all, is simply on his own.

Pennsylvania Death: Work Related, Not Compensable

Monday, August 1st, 2011

David Little worked for B & L Ford in Ashland, Pennsylvania. He suffered a shoulder injury in October 2005. He worked light duty up until January 19, 2006, when the employer received a letter from his attorney stating he was unable to perform any manual labor. The employer advised Little to secure a note from his doctor regarding his ability – or inability – to work. His doctor gave Little a letter stating he was unable to work, but before Little had the opportunity to present the letter to B & L Ford, they sent Little a letter of their own, terminating him.
Little spent a weekend brooding over the termination. He called his wife home from her job on Monday. She found Little at the kitchen table, holding the termination letter. He stood up and then collapsed from a heart attack. Emergency workers had to pry the letter from his hand. Little died later that day at a hospital.
Was this a work-related fatality? Little’s widow filed two workers comp claims, one for Temporary total benefits up until the death, and one for death/survivor benefits.
Small Victory, Big Loss
A workers comp judge awarded temporary total disability benefits up to the date of Little’s death; once Little became “unavailable” for work (i.e., dead), the benefits ceased. On the issue of a work-related fatality, the judge found – and the Commonwealth Court of PA upheld – that the death was not work related, as it neither occurred “in the course and scope of employment” nor did Little’s activities on that fatal day “further the interests” of the employer.
There is no question that the loss of his job was a significant, perhaps predominant, factor in Little’s death. However, personnel actions (discipline, demotions and terminations) are generally excluded from workers comp coverage. The sequence of events that began with his attorney’s letter culminated first in the loss of the job and then in a fatal heart attack.
Given that Little had filed a workers comp claim and the employer apparently fired him because of his injury, the widow might be able to sue for wrongful termination. But the courts have made it clear that aside from a modest indemnity payment for lost time, workers comp will provide the widow no solace and no support for the work-related loss of her husband.

New York: What Is Compensable May Not Be Just

Monday, July 18th, 2011

Gary Veeder had the kind of job TV viewers love: for 31 years he was a scientist in the New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center. He specialized in trace evidence, examining fibers, arson residue, footwear impressions, glass, hair and other evidence gathered in criminal investigations. His findings carried significant weight in criminal trials. People went to jail based upon his evidence. Alas, a state investigation found significant problems in 29 percent of Veeder’s 322 cases. That’s a lot of problems – and a lot of jail time – for people who may or may not have committed crimes.
As the investigation into his work unfolded, Veeder first retired and then committed suicide by hanging himself in his garage. Given that the stress leading to the suicide was predominantly caused by work, his widow filed for workers comp benefits. The claim was denied, on the basis that the stress was the result of personnel actions, which are excluded from comp eligibility.
The case wended its way to the Appelate Division of the NY Supreme Court, where the decision to deny benefits was reversed and the case sent back to the workers comp board for reconsideration.
Nothing Personnel
The reversal was based upon a simple, rather stark conclusion: at the time of Veeder’s suicide, no personnel actions had been implemented. The state was investigating the situation; they had uncovered problems in Veeder’s work, but they were on a narrowly defined “fact finding” mission. No action had been taken against Veeder: he was not suspended or demoted or disciplined in any manner. Thus the stress was purely the result of the investigation, not of any personnel action.
In other words, had the employer simply announced to Veeder that the investigation was the initial phase of a disciplinary process, he would probably not have been eligible for workers comp. The only facts that count: he was under enormous work-related stress (of his own making) and he killed himself as a direct result of the work-related situation. And because comp is no fault, it appears that Veeder’s widow will be eligible for burial and indemnity benefits.
Is this fair? Is this just? Maybe yes, maybe no, but these questions themselves are not relevant in the determination of compensability. The claim may still be denied, but some other basis of denial must be found.
Hard Time
Veeder did his job poorly, but he was never held accountable by his superiors. A case can be made that Veeder’s widow is an innocent party, that she is entitled to benefits for her husband’s “work-related” death – despite the fact that virtually all of the stress was of Veeder’s own doing. Meanwhile, quite a few people convicted on corrupted evidence are serving hard time. Some were probably guilty, others completely innocent. But in cases where the lynchpin of conviction was Veeder’s incompetent work, all deserve to go free. This is unlikely to happen. Is this fair? Is this just? Nothing “maybe” about it. Justice – to this point, at least – has certainly not been served.

Annals of Compensability: Death by Sitting in New Jersey

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

Work can be a killer when workers are asked to do too much: intense labor in the heat of summer, the stress of heavy repetitive lifting, moving too quickly among common workplace hazards. But can work kill us from doing too little? Can work-required inactivity lead to a compensable claim?
For twenty five years, Cathleen Renner worked as a manager for AT&T. With a heavy workload, she often brought work home and labored at her computer late into the night. In September 2007, facing a tight deadline, she appeared to pull an all-nighter; she sent an email to a colleague around midnight and was seen at her desk at 7 in the morning, at which time she complained about a pain in her leg. She labored on through the morning. Around 11 am, she had trouble breathing. By the time she reached the hospital, she was dead from a pulmonary embolism (which began with that pain in her leg).
The New Jersey workers compensation had to determined if work was the predominant cause of the death.
Risks in Doing Nothing
Back in May of 2006, we blogged the dangers of inactivity. If people sit still for a long time – for example, during air travel – they are at risk for deep vein thrombosis. It appears that Cathleen’s prolonged and unrelieved sitting at her computer caused just such an incident. According to a medical expert, she experienced an “unorganized” blood clot which developed while she was sitting (as opposed to an organized clot, which takes much longer to form). Despite her other risk factors – obesity and the use of birth control pills – the court determined that her death was work related.
The defense argued that Cathleen lived a relatively sedentary life – that her sitting at the computer was no different than her sitting at other times. But her husband countered with the observation that they had school-aged children. Cathleen was always running around, taking the kids to school and appointments, cooking meals, cleaning the house and doing the myriad tasks that virtually all mothers must perform. That’s a pretty compelling argument and it convinced the judges: the Superior Court determined that the prolonged sitting while performing work-related tasks caused her death.
Get Out of that Chair!
Savvy employers will note the risks of prolonged sitting and encourage – require! – employees to get up at least once an hour to move around and stretch. (Policies should cover workers in their home offices, too.) Moving around not only prevents blood clots, it also prevents injuries to the spine. Humans are not meant to sit in one place indefinitely. We are built to move and move we must.
With that being stated, I’m going to stand up and stretch a bit. Unless you are reading this on a treadmill, I recommend that you do the same.

Retaliation in Ohio: Fire in Haste, Repent at Leisure

Monday, June 13th, 2011

DeWayne Sutton worked for Tomco Machining in Dayton, Ohio. When he hurt his back while dismantling some equipment, he followed “best practices” and reported the injury immediately to company owner Jim Tomasiak. The boss pulled a “Trump” – deviating 180 degrees from “best practices” by firing Sutton immediately. No reason was given for the termination. As you would expect, Sutton was able to collect comp benefits (termination is no bar to eligibility), but could he also sue for wrongful termination? In other words, was the termination retaliation for reporting the claim?
Under the Ohio statute, employers are prohibited from firing, demoting or taking punitive action against an employee who files a workers comp claim. The question at issue is one of timing: the claim had been reported to the employer, but not yet filed with the insurer. So did Tomasiak violate the law by firing Sutton in the interval between the injury and the report to the insurer?
Begging to Differ
In a sharply divided opinion (4-3), the Supreme Court of Ohio found in Sutton’s favor, sending the case back to the lower court for reconsideration. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, writing for the majority, notes:

We find that the General Assembly did not intend to leave a gap in protection during which time employers are permitted to retaliate against employees who might pursue workers’ compensation benefits.
The alternative interpretation – that the legislature intentionally left the gap – is at odds with the basic purpose of the anti-retaliation provision, which is “to enable employees to freely exercise their rights without fear of retribution from their employers.”

The court minority noted that Sutton was able to collect comp benefits – kind of “no harm, no foul.” Then, as Justice Terrence O’Donnell notes:

The majority has today expanded the public policy behind the provisions of (state law) to apply to those persons discharged before filing, instituting or pursuing a workers’ compensation claim. This allowance is a legislative prerogative, and in my view, we should follow the law as written and defer to the General Assembly, instead of stretching the extent of protection to fit situations not addressed by the statute.

This is familiar territory in the world of law: liberal interpretation (the majority) versus strict construction (the minority). One vote determined the outcome.
The Biggest Loser
Business owner Tomasiak comes away with a double whammy: he is liable for the comp claim through the experience rating process; having fired Sutton, he is unable to lower the cost of the claim by bringing Sutton back to work on modified duty. Then he faces a wrongful termination lawsuit, which he is probably going to lose. The timing of his action, along with the absence of any stated rationale, reak of retaliation.
Tomasiak’s impulsive response to Sutton’s injury violated Rule Number One for employers: if employees are not working out, fire them before they get hurt. Once they are injured, comp laws pretty much assume that any firing would be retaliation. For Tomasiak, just trying to run his machine shop in Dayton, Ohio, this is a tough – and expensive – lesson in best practices.

GCs in MA: Comp’s Not-So-Exclusive Remedy

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Henry C. Becker Custom Building Limited was doing some construction work in Newburyport MA. They hired the Great Green Barrier Company to do some waterproofing. They apparently did not ask for a certificate of insurance; Great Green Barrier did not carry workers comp for their employees. There was an explosion on the jobsite. Timothy Wentworth, an employee of Great Green Barrier, was killed; his son, Ezekiel, was severely injured. As the employees of an uninsured subcontractor, the Wentworths collected workers comp through Becker’s insurance company, which paid out substantial lump sum settlements to each.
Then the Wentworths sued Becker as a third party. Becker objected: comp, after all, is an exclusive remedy. Once the Wentworths collected comp benefits, they should be precluded from any other remedies. Becker sought and won a summary judgment dismissing the lawsuit.
The case wended its way to the MA Supreme Judicial Court, where the justices determined that the summary judgment was improper: the exclusive remedy provision of the comp statute applies only to employees. The Wentworths were not employees of Becker, but of Great Green Barrier. Becker, in other words, was a third party and thus, despite the payment of comp benefits, was not immune from lawsuit.
Compounded Liabilties
Becker is going to pay and pay again: first, under their workers comp policy, the payroll for Great Green Barrier employees will have been added to the Becker payroll in the premium audit; that’s the chump change. Then, the substantial losses for the Wentworths – each likely exceeding the state rating point limit of $175,000 – will be added to the experience modification calculation for Becker over a three year period. That’s serious bucks (but nowhere near the financial hit taken by Becker’s comp carrier).
Then, given this ruling, the Becker company is vulnerable to a lawsuit, which is likely to result in additional payments to the Wentworth family. The MA Supreme Court has made it crystal clear: general contractors are liable for the comp costs of uninsured subs, but the acceptance of comp benefits does not preclude a third party lawsuit.
The lesson for GCs should be clear: proper risk transfer must be a fundamental part of the operation. Make sure subcontractors carry workers comp: require that any and all subs produce a certificate of insurance, with the GC named as an additional insured. Track the expiration dates on the certificates and do not allow subs on the job site unless they have shown that comp (and liability) policies are in place.
Henry C. Becker Custom Building has learned about risk transfer the hard way, an expensive lesson indeed. May a word to the wise be sufficient.

Reckless, Negligent and Not Compensable

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Last September we blogged the sorry saga of Illinois trooper Matt Mitchell. He was heading toward an accident scene, siren blazing, texting his girlfriend and weaving in and out of traffic at a mind-boggling 126 miles per hour. (There was no urgency, as other troopers were already at the scene.) He crossed the median and slammed into a car coming the other way, killing teenage sisters Kelli and Jessica Uhl. Three days after pleading guilty to criminal charges, he filed for workers comp benefits. We expected that he would be able to collect; after all, comp is no fault and Mitchell was certainly in the “course and scope of employment.”
We guessed wrong. An arbitrator found him ineligible, saying he neglected his duties as a trooper by taking “unjustifiable” risks. He was ineligible, in effect, because he knowingly and willfully put himself and others at risk. Mitchell is appealing the arbitrator’s decision.
Carved in Stone
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Pot Smoking with Bears: Stupidity is (Still) Compensable

Friday, April 1st, 2011

We last encountered Brock Hopkins back in June of 2010, when he had secured workers comp benefits for severe injuries incurred while feeding bears. He was a bit stoned at the time. Russell Kilpatrick, owner of Great Bear Adventures in Montana, contended that Hopkins was a volunteer. Judge Jeremiah Shea found in Hopkins’s favor. Now the Supreme Court of Montana has weighed in, finding that Judge Shea got it right.
There were three major issues in determining compensability: whether Hopkins was an employee; whether he was in the course and scope of employment when attacked; and whether his marijuana use precluded payment of benefits.
Hopkins frequently worked in the park, performing minor repairs and, yes, feeding the bears.The pay was informal, but Kilpatrick would slip him some money now and then. This “exchange of money for favors” is, well, employment. Thus, Hopkins was an employee, working under the admittedly informal and ad hoc supervision of the laid-back Kilpatrick.
While it is not clear that Kilpatrick wanted the bears fed on the fateful day, he did not tell Hopkins not to feed them. And as Judge Shea deadpanned in his ruling: “…presumably, customers are unwilling to pay cash to see dead and emaciated bears.” Hopkins, in other words, was working when he mixed up the feed, set down his marijuana pipe on a fence post and entered the enclosure.
Finally, the judge opined that smoking marijuana while working among bears was “ill-advised to say the least and mind-bogglingly stupid to say the most,” being high was not a factor in the attack. Red, the attacking bear, was an “equal opportunity mauler” and likely would have gone after anyone, stoned or sober.
So Brock Hopkins, a loser by most accounts, wins in the courts. He collects indemnity for his (considerable) troubles and has all his extensive medical bills paid through the Montana uninsured fund. Kilpatrick’s legal woes continue, as he did not carry workers comp insurance for the employees he didn’t think he had. So much for clear thinking in the good mountain air of Montana.