Workers’ Compensation Round-Up
The past few months have seen a number of significant decisions in the Workers’ Compensation field. This article will examine five recent cases and the lessons to be learned from them.
In Gentex Corporation and Gallagher Bassett Services v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Morack) (July 20, 2011), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania took up the question of what constitutes “notice” under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The claimant, who worked for 45 years as an inspector, experienced hand pain and told her employer that she could not work. She indicated on a short-term disability form that her hand pain was not work-related, but a doctor subsequently diagnosed her with a number of work-related injuries. After the diagnosis, the claimant attempted several times to contact the employer’s human resources manager and left at least one phone message indicating that she had “work-related problems.” The employer argued that this was insufficient to provide notice under the Act, but the Court disagreed. The Court noted that an employee must provide a “reasonably precise description” and an indication that an injury is work-related. Here, the claimant’s complaint to her supervisor of hand pain and follow-up phone call indicating work-relatedness were sufficient to provide notice under the Act. Given this liberal interpretation of the Act, employers cannot rely on an employee’s initial denial that an injury is work-related and must consider a physician’s later diagnosis. In addition, employers should be vigilant in training supervisors to recognize potential claims, particularly in cases where repetitive injury is feasible.
Habib v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (John Roth Paving Pavemasters) (August 12, 2011) refined the “course and scope of employment” inquiry for work-related injuries. The claimant, a member of a paving crew, was awaiting delivery of a truckload of asphalt when a bowling ball was found nearby. After a round of shot-put, someone issued a challenge to see if anyone could break the ball with a sledge hammer. When the claimant attempted it, a piece of the bowling ball broke off and struck him in the face, ultimately causing complete loss of his right eye. The employer presented testimony from the foreman that he had told the claimant to “knock it off, or stop” immediately prior to the injury-causing blow and had informed the claimant that he would not take him to the hospital if he was injured. The Workers Compensation Judge concluded the warning had not occurred in time and granted the Claim Petition. On appeal, the Appeal Board and, ultimately, the Commonwealth Court disagreed, explaining that (1) violation of the order to “knock it off” caused the injury, (2) the claimant knew that the foreman wanted him to stop, and (3) the order to stop and activity causing the injury were “not connected with the employee’s work duties.” The case reaffirms the importance of a supervisor’s affirmative duty to curb horseplay, and employers should ensure that their written policies regarding such activities are clear and adequately disseminated.
Another course and scope of employment issue centers on employees who work from home. In Werner v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Greenleaf Service Corporation) (September 1, 2011), the Court examined the burden of a claimant who is injured while working at a home office. Werner was a fatal claim in which the individual suffered a brain hemorrhage resulting from a blow to the head. The injury took place between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., but there was no evidence that the employee was actually working during that time. Given the dearth of any indication that the employee was working or merely on a quick break from work, the Court disallowed the petition. In doing so, the Court distinguished the case of Verizon Pennsylvania, Inc. v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Alston), 900 A.2d 440, 444 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006), in which an employee had taken a quick break to drink a glass of orange juice in her kitchen and had tripped going down the stairs to her home office. In that case, the Court had granted the claim because the kitchen run had merely been a brief departure to attend to her personal comforts. Because there were no witnesses to Werner’s death, the case was distinguishable and the claim was denied. Though the facts of the Werner and Alston cases are somewhat unique, they illustrate the evidentiary issues surrounding employees who work from home. Employers need to be aware of these issues and put policies in place to control at-home work as much as possible.
In Green v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (US Airways) (August 22, 2011), the Commonwealth Court cautioned employers not to confuse the word “degenerative” with an indication that a condition was not work-related. The claimant’s expert had opined that work-related trauma had set her degenerative condition in motion, and the Workers’ Compensation Judge had interpreted this testimony to be that the injury was not traumatic but was, instead, a long-standing degenerative condition. In reversing, the Court noted that the word “degenerative” merely describes the condition itself and does not, in itself, address the issue of causation. Employers and insurers reviewing medical records or seeking the opinion of an independent medical examiner should be careful not to associate a “degenerative” condition automatically with a denial of causation.
Finally, here is a tragic but interesting case involving what constitutes “normal” working conditions for a particular industry. In Pa Liquor Control Board v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Kochanowitz) (September 20, 2011), an employee claimed to have post-traumatic stress disorder caused by an armed robbery he experienced while working at a liquor store. In psychic injury cases where there is no physical harm, a claimant must prove “abnormal working conditions” to get relief. The employer presented testimony that claimant had been trained in how to deal with robberies and that 99 liquor stores in Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Delaware, and Philadelphia counties had been robbed since 2002, which equated to more than one per month. The claimant further admitted that shoplifting was frequent at the store and that it was in a high-risk area. Under these circumstances, the Court held that the armed robbery did not constitute “abnormal working conditions” and denied the Claim.
The Workers’ Compensation attorneys at Barley Snyder are available to answer questions regarding these cases or any other employment-related matters.