Posts Tagged ‘case law’

Medical Marijuana: Walmart Wins! (Walmart Loses)

Monday, February 28th, 2011

We have been following the sad saga of Joseph Casias, a former Walmart employee in Battle Creek, Michigan. Casias, 29, suffers from a sinus cancer and an inoperable brain tumor. (He looks so much older than his years.) After 5 unusually successful years as a Walmart employee, he injured his knee on the job, after which he underwent a mandatory drug test. Casias has a prescription for medical marijuana (legal in Michigan). Inevitably, he failed the drug test. Walmart fired him.
He sued for wrongful termination in federal court. He lost.
Judge Robert Jonker found that while Casias’s use of marijuana was legal, Walmart was within its rights to terminate him. Nothing in the Michigan statute legalizing pot regulates private employment. As we pointed out in a recent blog, the issue of legal drugs in the workplace is a gray zone of formidable dimensions. Employers will usually err on the side of caution, as the exposures for negligent retention appear to outweigh the pressure to accommodate disabled employees. Hence, Walmart wins.
What is lost in the standard personnel procedures that identified Casias as a (legal) drug user and terminated his employment is a simple fact that may or may not concern Walmart. Casias was a highly motivated and valued employee. His work was exemplary. Workers like Casias are not easy to find, especially when the pay is marginal. It’s worth a little extra effort to hold on to them. By following their own rules to the letter, Walmart wins in court but loses on the selling floor.
Legally Disemployed
Even though states are showing some flexibility in their approaches to marijuana, legalization is no help to workers who have a prescription for the drug. These folks will routinely fail post-accident drug tests. As a result, any injury to a worker using medical marijuana will result in a termination. Zero tolerance, zero employment.
We are not suggesting that states attempt to preempt the rights of employers in statutes that legalize marijuana. With so much at stake, with so many complex risk factors at play, employers must have the final say in who works and who is let go. We can only hope that employers use their powers – dare I say it? – compassionately.
Did Walmart have an alternative? With his serious illness, Joseph Casias appears to meet the ADA’s definition of disabled. Walmart could have approached the dilemma through the ADA accommodation process. After Casias failed the drug test, they could have determined: first, that the drug was prescribed; second, that the drug use was not a factor in his injury; and third, that there have been no indications that his drug use has impacted his performance on the job. Having passed this three-pronged test, Walmart could have decided to “accommodate” Casias’s disability by waiving the drug test results and retaining him as an employee.
Alas, in the world of huge corporations, the fate of one man just isn’t worth that much effort. Why bother being flexible when it’s so much easier – and perfectly legal – to show employees the door?
You know the Walmart motto: Save money. Live better. Nothing in there about doing the right thing for the likes of Joe Casias.

A Hand for Dr. Woolley

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

For nearly 15 years, beginning in 1990, Bradley Clark was a baggage handler for United Airlines. He started at age 33, and by the time he was unable to perform the work, he was nearly 50. Ten years in, he began experiencing pain in his thumb joints. In 2004 he banged his hand against a cart and was diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel, for which he had surgery. Unfortunately, the surgery did not stop the pain. (NOTE to claims adjusters: This is yet another example of unnecessary surgery, based upon the wrong diagnosis.)
With pain continuing after the surgery, Clark sought treatment from a hand specialist. He treated with Dr. Charles T. Woolley, who performed surgical fusions on both thumbs. Coverage of this surgery was denied, as a succession of five physicians concluded that Clark’s problem was osteoarthritis, which is hereditary and unrelated to work. The opinions included an IME performed by two doctors, who concurred with the other doctors that the condition was not work related.
Slam dunk for the employer, right?
Making the Case
In his choice of a hand surgeon, Bradley Clark stumbled upon a stubborn and determined physician, one more than willing to disagree with his colleagues. Dr. Woolley diagnosed bilateral trapeziometacarpal joint arthritis and insisted that it was work related. Among his impressively detailed findings:
– Clark was too young to develop osteoarthritis, as he was only 43 years old when the pain first developed.
– He found no genetic pre-disposition to developing osteoarthritis, as none of the other joints in Clark’s hands, such as his fingers, revealed osteoarthritis. There was no osteoarthritis in any other part of his body.
– Osteoarthritis in the thumbs is typically seen in women, in particular post-menopausal women. Clark rather obviously did not fall within this category.
– Clark performed significant lifting for 16 years, which required repetitive pinching of his thumbs. This kind of grabbing/pinching activity places significant loading on the thumbs and ultimately leads to a wear and tear of the thumb joints. Wear and tear over time led to instability of his joints causing the osteoarthritis. His TMC or thumb joints became unstable over time because of the repetitive grabbing/pinching use. Over time with continued use, his cartilage in his thumbs wore off due to the repetitive friction from the pinching/grabbing.
– Contusions/strains, such as the work injury he sustained in November 2004, also contributed to the osteoarthritis, because they cause damage to the cartilage which leads to instability of the ligament. Jamming one’s thumb also contributes to the development of osteoarthritis because it damages the ligament causing instability and then osteoarthritis.
– The thumb basal joint (where the thumb meets the wrist) is exposed to very high stresses with grabbing activities and the forces felt at the tip of the thumb are multiplied twelve times in their effect on the thumb base, thus predisposing this joint to wear and tear. Clark’s work activities as a ramp serviceman are the exact kind of activities to cause wear and tear to the thumb joint because of the grabbing involved; this wear and tear led directly to the osteoarthritis in his thumbs.
Deep Knowledge
While there were five doctors lined up against him, Woolley was the only hand specialist among them. The duelling docs bolstered their differing cases through articles in medical journals. The Oregon Court of Appeals was faced with a choice: side with the majority or side with the expert.
Ultimately, Dr. Woolley’s opinion prevailed. His compelling testimony, combined with his intimate knowledge of hands, won the day. So let’s have a little hand for Dr. Woolley, who could have taken the easy way out and deferred to his colleagues, but instead fought the good fight for a hard-working man who could no longer do his job.
(For the record, we duly note that Clark retired from his job long before the onerous baggage fees went into effect, at which time many of us lost a bit of sympathy for these harried and ultimately blameless workers.)

Illiteracy has its Rewards

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

When a laborer is unable to perform physical work, the options are limited, not only for the worker, but for the workers comp system as well. Meet Pennsylvania’s Sam Muzzicato. He came to America from his native Italy in 1969. He had only four years of schooling in Italy. He immediately went to work in America and continued working until January 2007, when he injured his back while employed as a laborer for Strow’s Plumbing and Heating Company.
Strow’s insurer hired a vocational expert to determine Sam’s earning power. The expert came up with five possible jobs in the immediate labor market:
– Cashier at a Jiffy Lube
– Teller at a local casino
– Dispatcher for a trucking company
– A customer sales rep
– Front desk clerk in a hotel
Do you see a common denominator in all of these jobs? Some degree of computer literacy is needed. The Administrative Law Judge dismissed the first four jobs as not within Sam’s capabilities, but for unknown reasons determined that he could perform the desk clerk position. With this theoretical job available, the ALJ approved a reduction in Sam’s weekly indemnity benefit.
Here is the theory in PA law behind the wage reduction:

“[A]n employer may seek modification of a claimant’s benefits by either offering the claimant a specific job that it has available that he is capable of performing or establishing earning power through expert opinion evidence.”

Sam appealed to the Commonwealth Court, where the judges determined that the inclusion of the single job by the ALJ was capricious, and that Sam was incapable of performing any of the jobs recommended by the voc expert. Sam, in other words, has few, if any, transferable skills. When his body broke down, he had nothing to bring to the marketplace. As a result, his full indemnity will continue.
Broken Bodies
Sam’s story is by no means unique. Many of the immigrants who came to this country to find work had limited education in their native lands. Once here, they were too busy or too indifferent to pursue educational goals. They gained a foothold through hard work, perhaps shifting educational goals onto their children. Now as they enter the waning years of employment, their bodies break down. Where once they recovered quickly from workplace injuries, now the pain lingers, eroding their capacity to work. And once out of work, there is literally no place to go.
What lies ahead for the Sam Muzzicatos of the world? While it sounds odd to say it, Sam is lucky that he was injured at work. His back problems will be treated through the comp system for the foreseeable future. He will collect roughly 2/3 of his average weekly wage, tax free, at least until his eligibility for temporary total benefits runs out. After that, he will probably qualify for some form of permanent partial award. Sam, in other words, will transition rather smoothly into retirement through the generosity of the workers comp system.
Strow’s Plumbing and Heating will foot the bill through the experience rating process for three years. After that, the insurer will be on the hook for whatever is owed to Sam. Is this fair? Does it make sense? Is Sam being rewarded for his failure over the years to improve his skills through education? Ironically, if Sam did have transferable skills, his benefits would have been reduced, despite the fact that he might not be able to find work in this troubled economy. Would that have been fair? Indeed, in the world of workers comp, as judges parse the letter of the law and and employers struggle to pay the bills and injured workers battle to survive, is fairness even an issue under consideration?

ADA and Fitness for Duty Exams: No Fear

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Today we examine an interesting case where the ADA runs up against OSHA’s general duty clause, where the individual’s right to “reasonable accommodation” collides with the need to ensure the safety of the general public.
In 1999 Oscar Brownfield became a policemen in Yakima, Washington. By all accounts, he was a good cop. In 2000 he suffered a head injury in a non-work-related car accident. He returned to work about 6 months later. In 2005 the troubles began: he (wrongfully) accused a co-worker of malfeasance. He was short-tempered, storming out of a disciplinary hearing with a superior. He described moments of intense anxiety when he was not sure he could control himself. And he made alarming comments about how meaningless life had become.
Fearful of Brownfield’s mental state, his employer sent him for a Fitness for Duty Exam (FFDE). He was diagnosed with a mood disorder and disabled from work due to his “emotional volatility, poor judgment and irritibility.” The disability was considered permanent.
Then Brownfield had another auto accident. His treating physician, Dr. Gondo, released him for work: that is, he wrote that Brownfield could carry out the “physical requirements” of the job. When pressed on the issue of Brownfield’s mental state, Dr. Gondo did not back down, but he did not respond either. He simply remained silent. As a result, the Yakima police department sent Brownfield for a second FFDE, with the same result as the first. Brownfield was terminated from his job.
Claiming an ADA disability (he does appear eligible), Brownfield sued for a violation of the ADA, violation of his first amendment rights of free speech (his apparently groundless accusations against a fellow cop) and violation of the FMLA (which limits the ability of employers to require multiple FFDEs). Brownfield’s case was dismissed on summary judgment by the district court, a decision subsequently upheld by the 9th circuit court of appeals.
A Tool in the Toolbox
Employers often balk at requiring Fitness for Duty exams. They fear a violation of the employee’s rights. This case clearly indicates that those rights can and should be tempered by a clear-headed vision of business necessity. If the employee’s mental or physical condition undermines his ability to perform essential job functions safely, a fitness for duty exam is not only allowable, it is necessary. To be sure, the exam comes with a high standard: the need must be work related and it must derive from business necessity. But where these standards are met, employers must act. If the employer takes the path of least resistance and does nothing, they could easily be charged with negligent retention when and if something bad happens.
Management continuously walks a fine line between employee rights and the obligation to operate a safe workplace. Yakima took a chance in terminating Brownfield’s employment, but it appears that they did what had to be done and they did it legally. Brownfield was unable to perform his job safely. His mental state comprised a risk to himself and to the public he was oath-bound to protect. It is never easy confronting an unruly, agitated and volatile employee, but it must be done – and done in a timely manner.

Health Wonk Review and other workers comp news notes

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Joe Paduda is the man of the moment. His Managed Care Matters blog is worth a regular perusal for the informed commentary he offers about the medical side of workers comp. Today, there’s twice as much reason to visit because he’s the host of this week’s Health Wonk Review, in which the focus is on implementing health care reform. Check out this biweekly best of the health policy blogosphere!
Violence on the job – This week, The Hartford Courant posts that the total work comp payout for the shooting at Hartford Distributors could set a record. The company’s workers’ compensation insurer is The Hanover Insurance Group. Reporter Matthew Sturdevant notes that families of deceased and injured workers have one year from the Aug. 3 shooting to file workers’ compensation claims and discusses state benefit levels. (See our related posting from last week about the aftermath of the shooting in Connecticut. )
In another corner of the world, other workers were homicide victims. The New York Times offers a tribute to 10 medical workers who were killed while on a mission to provide aid to remote Afghanistan villages that generally don’t have access to medical care. Workers included 6 U.S. medical personnel and humanitarian workers, one German, one Briton and two Afghans.
Volunteer firefighter case – The Chicago Tribune reports on a recent Iowa court finding in a dispute between two insurers which ruled that a volunteer firefighter must be officially summoned to duty to be covered by workers’ comp. Justin Fauer died while trying to rescue his boss from a manure pit. In addition to being a farm worker at the farm where he died, Fauer was also a volunteer firefighter. According to the report, “The farm’s insurance company, Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Company, paid the claim but sought for it to be shared by the fire department’s company, Traveler’s Insurance Company, claiming Fauer also responded as a firefighter.” The Iowa Supreme Court upheld a district court decision that “…a volunteer firefighter cannot be summoned to duty by circumstances, but can only be summoned by the fire department or some other official channel.”
Deadline reminder to 9-11 recovery workersGround Zero workers must register by September 13 of this year to be eligible for future worker’s compensation benefits if they are sick or should become sick as a result of 9/11 exposure. Less than half the estimated 100,000 volunteers and workers who are eligible to register have done so. Authorities urge workers to register as a precaution. Joel Shufro of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health says that “”You don’t have to experience symptoms to file for this …You may never use it. We are seeing so many workers now developing symptoms and some are getting worse. So this is a very protective measure, safety net, so people who do get sick in the future will have protection.”
Popcorn Lung – Richard Bales of Workplace Prof Blog posts that an Illinois jury has awarded $30.4 million to a plant worker suffering severe lung disease from diacetyl. See more from on the popcorn lung case from the Joplin Globe.
BP agrees to pay for safety violations at Texas City refinery
Liz Borowski of The Pump Handle reminds us that before BP became synonymous with the Gulf oil disaster, it’s prior “claim to fame” was the 2005 Texas City refinery disaster that killed 15 workers. When OSHA conducted a 2009 follow-up investigation, it issued $50.6 million in failure-to-abate citations, plus $30.7 million for 439 new willful violations it identified. BP had disputed these violations, but last week, agreed to pay the entire $50.6 million.

Flighty Health Wonk Review and sundry other news blurbs

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Jaan Sidorov has an air travel themed Health Wonk Review posted over at Disease Management Care Blog, which he calls “frequent flyer miles for your brain.” There’s a roundup of assorted news on the health care policy front ranging from a post on the growth of MinuteClinics to a look at hospital quality surveys. Get your dose of the news from some of the brightest braniacs in the health policy blogosphere.
Here are a few other health-care related news items we noted in our travels: Katharine Van Tassel of HealthLawProfBlog posts the disturbing news revealed via a survey that 36% of responding physicians don’t believe in reporting impaired colleagues. And at Managed Care Matters, Joe Paduda talks about the results of a Kaiser Health Tracking Poll that demonstrates the power of mis-information: “Half of seniors (50%) say the [heathcare reform] law will cut benefits that were previously provided to all people on Medicare, and more than a third (36%) incorrectly believe the law will “allow a government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare.”
The Weekly Toll – If you haven’t visited in awhile, stop by The Weekly Toll to read about US workers who died on the job this past week. Many seasonal hazards are represented with a high toll of tractor and farming-related fatalities and construction-related deaths in this week’s grim list. And the list does not include the 8 employees of Hartford Distributors who were killed by a coworker.
Whistleblowers – Michael Fox of Jottings By An Employer’s Lawyer tell us that the difference between cloth and leather gloves is just over $1 million in his post about a Maine court’s ruling in favor of a whistleblower who was terminated after making complaints about safety and working conditions. Maine courts aren’t the only ones who are taking a dim view of retaliation against employees who report safety problems: at Today’s Workplace, Mike Hall posts that OSHA takes whistleblowers seriously and has established a website to offer a Whistleblower Protection Program.
Teen workers – Elizabeth Cooney writes about young employees who face injury or even death on the job in an article in the Boston Globe. Teens often are employed in some of the most dangerous jobs and have little in the way of training, as evidenced by the fact that the nonfatal injury rate for 15- to 17-year-olds in the United States was 5.2 per 100 full-time equivalent workers per year, double the rate for adults 25 and older. She discusses research from the state’s Teens at Work initiative, which revealed that of “208 teens under age 18 who had been injured at work from 2003 through 2007, about half said they had no safety training. About 15 percent said there was no supervisor on site when they were hurt. Almost a quarter said they had no work permit.”
Remarkable storyChrissy gets a new face from Work Comp Complex Care: “…her story of recovery is incredible on several levels – for the medical technology involved; for the reminder that dedicated health care professionals have the power to make a huge difference in a patient’s quality of life; and for the grace and attitude of the woman who suffered a devastating, life-changing injury and did not let it defeat her.”
Protecting football players – In Hitless or Witless?, Skip Rozin of WSJ.com discusses new NFL safeguards to protect football players from serious head injuries. Long overdue, and more is needed. The biggest hurdle will be overcoming the culture. As Rozin puts it “One of the biggest obstacles here is the athletes’ code of playing hurt.”
Nursing shifts – A new study from the University of Maryland-Baltimore reveals that long shifts pose health hazards for nurses – and may increase the risk to patients, as well. Study authors said that “the most common problems with an overemphasis on 12-hour shifts are needle-stick injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, drowsy driving, and other health breakdowns related to sleep deprivation.”
Legal briefs – In South Carolina, the court ruled that free living quarters offered as inducement for employment are considered wages. In a case involving horseplay, an Iowa court ruled in favor of a butt-shaking employee on appeal. A Washington court found that a fitness for duty test did not violate the ADA.
OSHA – Dwayne Towles of Advanced Safety Health News Blog warns employers that OSHA is scrutinizing safety incentive programs and may be asking for any written policies or details of any contests or promotions. They are looking for programs that might discourage employees from reporting injuries. Towles offers his thoughts for how to handle matters should OSHA come calling. And while on the topic of OSHA visits, SafetyNewsAlert offers additional suggestions in prepping for an inspection: top 10 dos and don’ts for OSHA inspections from 2 OSHA inspectors.

Bad Back: New York Toil and Trouble

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Today we examine one of the great conundrums in workers comp claims: the old injury that may or may not be defined as a new injury.
In 2006 David Poulton worked for Martec Industries in Rochester, New York, as a laborer. Poulton had a bad back, having already filed workers comp claims in 1998 and 2000. When he visited his treating physician in June 2006, he had the same old complaint: his back hurt, as it had virtually every day since his first injury in 1998. He told his doctor that he re-injured his back at work the prior day while lifting materials. At this appointment, a discouraged Poulton told his doctor he wanted to quit working.
In consideration of Poulton’s long-established problem, apparently compounded by the prior day’s incident, the doctor disabled him from work. He cited “old injuries and his continued decline.” He characterized the situation as involving “episodic increases in pain” that had troubled Poulton for several years. The doctor, in fact, had been encouraging Poulton to stop working prior to this particular visit.
An independent medical exam determined that Poulton suffered from degenerative disc disease and that his disability was caused primarily by preexisting problems.
So is this a new injury, as reported by Poulton, or simply the recurrence of an old one?
Who Pays?
An administrative law judge found in Poulton’s favor, determining that the lifting incident at Martec aggravated the pre-existing condition. However, this ruling was reversed by the appelate division of the NY supreme court, which found no evidence of a new injury and remanded the case for further consideration.
Poulton may yet succeed in re-establishing his workers comp claim, but it will draw upon the resources of the carrier for his prior employer, not the carrier for Martec. As is usually the case in workers comp, the narrative is driven by the evidence. In this case, the history of pain and suffering is so unrelenting and consistent, the “new injury” theory goes up in smoke. With his working days apparently at an end, Poulton probably does not care who pays for his troubles. He has suffered for a long time.The remaining question, of course, is who pays and how much.

Health Wonk Review’s Research Edition & a roundup of other news

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

Brad Wright of Wright on Health has an excellent edition of Health Wonk Review, which shines a spotlight on research. Brad notes that, going forward, research will be incredibly important as health reform is implemented and evaluated. He offers a fine research roundup from leading healthcare bloggers – check it out!
Healthcare – According to a Commonwealth Fund report on healthcare, which assessed and compared data from patient and physician surveys in seven countries in 2007, 2008 and 2009, the U.S. scored sixth out of seven countries on quality issues, yet we spent more than double per person than any other surveyed country. See the full report How the Performance of the U.S. Health Care System Compares Internationally, 2010 Update, which includes both a snapshot chart and an interactive comparison tool. Related: Results from the National Scorecard on U.S. Health System Performance, 2008
The importance of timely reporting – In Manucy v. Joe Manucy Racing, The Louisiana Court of Appeal recently ruled that an employee who was injured during horse training was ineligible for benefits because although the injury was immediately apparent, the worker did not file for benefits until about a year and a half after the injury occurred. Louisiana law stipulates a one-year from date of injury filing deadline for injuries that are immediately evident, and two years for injuries that do not develop immediately. In this case, the injury was immediately apparent, requiring ambulance transport and surgery within two months. State law varies on statues of limitations for benefit eligibility, most commonly falling between one and three years from date of injury. Many states offer some exceptions to the statutes – such as starting the clock ticking at date of disability rather than date of injury or allowing exceptions if there is conduct that might be regarded as deceptive on the part of the employer.
Going and coming – As a rule, any injuries that happen to an employee when they are traveling to or from work – ‘going and coming’ – are not compensable, but there are exceptions. Fortney v. AirTran Airways, Inc. deals with one of those exceptions: service/benefit to the employer. In this case, the employee was killed in a plane crash while flying on a reciprocal arrangement with another airline. The Kentucky Supreme Court upheld benefits to the estate of the deceased. At Lexis Nexis Workers’ Comp Community, Roland Legal PLLC summarizes the issues: “Whether an employer uses transportation or transportation expense as an inducement for an employee to accept or continue employment is material to supporting compensability, particularly when the journey is sizeable and when the employer pays all or substantially all of the expense.” See our prior post about common exceptions to the ‘going and coming’ rule.
Medicare – Get your popcorn and follow along as Joe Paduda offers a guide to the status of the Medicare “fix” and looks at various scenarios for how things may play out.
Retroactive Insurance in Georgia – events continue to play out in the wake of the insolvency of Southeastern U.S. Insurance Inc (SEUS) in Georgia (a story in and of itself, and worth a read if you haven’t been following along). After the SEUS demise, many employers were left holding the bag for the open claims of injured workers because they had not paid into the state’s insolvency fund and were therefore ineligible for coverage. New legislation will cover employers retroactively if they pay into the state insolvency fund, but the Georgia’s Insurers Insolvency Pool has filed a challenge to the new law. “The pool is placed in a position of uncertainty as to whether the legislation imposes duties and obligations on the pool retroactively in violation of the Georgia state constitution,” the filing says.
Arizona judge: no raiding the compensation fund – The state of Arizona is considering an appeal to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Larry Grant’s ruling which found that Governor Brewer and legislators ignored the plain language of the law by trying to use $4.7 million from the State Compensation Fund to help balance the budget. According to the judge “The proceeds held by the special fund are insurance proceeds held in the benefit of employees and employers covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act.”
Safety shorts

Blowing Smoke in Montana

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

As a service for Insider readers who do not follow the Flathead Beacon, we bring you the western Montana saga of Brock Hopkins, who either was or was not an employee of Great Bear Adventures when he had a great bear adventure of his own, much to his detriment. Hopkins, 23 at the time, appears to have been an occasional worker at the seasonal attraction. On November 2, 2007, he showed up at the park, took a few hits on his marijuana pipe (not prescribed by a doctor) and checked in with the park owner, Russell Kilpatrick, who was on the phone at the time.
Kilpatrick wanted Hopkins to repair a gate. After completing the task, Hopkins went to ask Kilpatrick if there was anything else that needed doing, but Kilpatrick was asleep (hibernating?). So Hopkins, after carefully placing his marijuana pipe on a storage shed outside the bear pen, mixed up some feed and entered the pen. He was attacked by a bear and sustained severe injuries to his legs. He barely managed to crawl out of the pen.
Contract of Hire
In subsequent court proceedings, Kilpatrick argued that Hopkins was a volunteer at the park. While he denies asking Hopkins to feed the bears, he admits that he did ask him to adjust the gate. And, yes, he did slip him $300 shortly after he was released from the hospital.
Judge James Jeremiah Shea, of the Montana Workers’ Compensation Court, disagreed with Kilpatrick. In his written decision, Judge Shea managed to reference the (marijuana stoked) comedy, “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle:”
“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.”
Kilpatrick denies asking Hopkins to feed bears, who may or may not have needed feeding. And one might be inclined to raise the issue of the marijuana impeding Hopkins’s judgment. Judge Shea took these factors into account and concluded that there was contradictory testimony on the issue of feeding the bears and most important, even though Hopkins smoked marijuana on the job, his being stoned was not a significant contributory factor in the injury. (If Hopkins could fix a gate while stoned, he could presumably feed the bears.)
Management’s Burden
Kilpatrick is appealing the ruling. He has a high mountain to climb if he wants to prove that Hopkins was not an employee. I’m not sure he is helping his cause when he indignantly stated the following:

“I became very very angry because I then knew what had happened. In my opinion Brock could not resist one last time of harassing the bears with his habit of blowing smoke in their faces for God only knows what reason and in direct defiance of my telling him NOT to disturb them!!!”

Alas, Kilpatrick is learning a tough lesson in management: you are responsible for the (stupid) actions of people who perform work-related tasks for you, whether or not you formally hired them – and in this case, whether or not you specifically asked them to perform a given task. (If a supervisor is napping, employees are pretty much on their own.)
The fact that Hopkins was prone to blowing smoke at the bears and Kilpatrick still allowed him on the property weakens his case considerably. (As Hopkins left his pipe on the shed prior to entering the pen, it is unlikely that he provoked the bear in this particular manner on that fateful day.)
Meanwhile, the youthful Hopkins has knee problems and possibly permanent muscle damage. He may want to find himself a medical practitioner to write him a script for marijuana, which is available legally in Montana. Blowing smoke can ease the pain, as long as you don’t direct it into the face of a sleepy or hungry bear.

Annals of Compensability: Mountain Dew, Mountain Don’t

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Henri Cyr was a part-time mechanic for McDermott’s, a Vermont company that transports milk from dairies to processing plants. A co-worker offered Cyr a bottle of Mountain Dew. As he was not thirsty at the time, he put the bottle in the workplace fridge. About a week later the fridge was cleaned out, so Cyr took the bottle home.
Some time later, Cyr came home after a workday, drank a couple of beers and then, feeling thirsty, he opened the bottle of Mountain Dew and took a deep swallow. Alas, the bottle contained toxic cleaning fluid. Cyr felt a severe burning sensation in his mouth, throat and stomach. He was rushed to the hospital, where blood work and urinalysis revealed that his blood alcohol level was .16, well above the legal limit for driving.
So here is the question for workers comp aficionados: is Cyr’s (severe) injury compensable under workers comp?
The initial claim was denied by the Vermont Department of Labor because Cyr was intoxicated and intoxication is an “absolute bar” to benefits – even though, we might add, the intoxication did not in any way contribute to the injury.
Now the Vermont Supreme Court has ruled that Cyr may indeed have a compensable claim. They have remanded the case back for consideration as to whether the injury arose out of “the course and scope of employment.” The majority wrote:

Here, we find that claimant’s injury arose out of his employment when he accepted the bottle containing the caustic chemicals. That act put the mechanism of injury in motion. This is not to suggest that his injury was inevitable once he received the bottle or that no superseding, intervening factor–such as intoxication–could have prevented his injury or altered its mechanism. However, no one suggests he was intoxicated at that time. …His injury would not have occurred had not his employment created the dangerous condition.

In his dissent, Justice Reiber returns to the language of the statute that precludes compensability for any injury “caused by or during intoxication [emphasis added]” He believes that compromising this absolute language in the statute runs contrary to legislative intent.
Whether he was technically drunk or sober, poor Henri Cyr was the victim of horrifying circumstances when he took a swig from the bottle mislabled “Mountain Dew.” He would have been better off if he had resorted to the beverage transported by his employer, wholesome milk.
The lingering mystery in this sad tale is how the toxic chemicals got into the Mountain Dew bottle: who did it and why? Such questions may be beyond the technical issue of compensability, but surely they are the questions most in need of answers.