Marshall works in Human Resources with extensive practical experience in hiring, promotions, and personal career development.
Many worker's compensation ("work comp") cases are clear cut, but unfortunately, some are not. Even when a case seems clear, certain aspects can also be tricky to evaluate, such as the amount of compensation required for a given injury. Each state and jurisdiction also may have its own rules and procedures; these stories might have had different outcomes in different local courts.
At the end of the day, if the hazard exists because of the employment, then the company needs to have solid knowledge of Workplace Safety in order to reduce the number of injuries and subsequent claims filed.
Here are a handful of interesting, unique, and bizarre cases to help show the interesting range of claims cases involved in the workers' compensation field.
1. $8.9 Million Settlement Award
This case is unusual because workers' compensation does not typically have newsworthy settlement amounts. Losses such as pain and suffering that are available in personal injury claims are not typically compensated under workplace injuries regulations. There is also no official ranking for the largest awards, so it is not easy to find major cases that are settled out, as they may never hit the news.
In California, Christopher Asvar, the attorney for Antonio Enriquez, has claimed to have secured one of the highest settlement values in history. At the age of 18, Enriquez fell from a 20-foot tall scaffold while working as a painter, and suffered severe injuries to the head and body.
Typical settlements are only designed to cover lost wages and medical bills, rather than punitive awards, such as "pain and suffering." Enriquez's youth means that his expected lifetime requiring medical care is very long, and the lifetime income he expects to lose due to his inability to work is significant. On this note, Enriquez may seem to have a lot of luck being awarded millions of dollars, but that amount will largely be spent on the basic cost of living and medical expenses.
2. Assaulted by a Neighbor While Working From Home
Working from home creates an unusual combination of work and personal factors that really muddy the water when discussing the hazards. Nearly every state requires that an injury "arise out of employment" to be covered under workers' compensation; that is to say that simply by having the job, they are exposed to the hazard.
Kristina Wait had been working from home for four years before her injuries. One day in 2004, she answered the door to a neighbor she knew, Nathaniel Sawyer. They visited for a few minutes, as he had done regularly before, and then he left. Moments later, Sawyer knocked again on the door, and no sooner than Mrs. Wait opened the door, he attacked her violently and caused her severe injuries, to include stab wounds.
Even though she was working at home, the courts had to consider whether or not her work relationship created the hazard. Courts approached with the thought that the hazards inside her house would possibly be her work environment and employment, however inviting a guest inside was not a factor of her employment, and as a result, was not covered. It was simply not inherent to the employment, and she was not attacked for her position, such as a bank teller in a robbery for example.
It is worth noting, a work comp denial does not prevent personal health insurance coverage, and certainty does not prevent the attacker from being charged with crimes appropriately. It's just that the responsibility for the injury did not end up with her employer.
Judgment: Benefits Denied
3. Injured in Student-Versus-Faculty Basketball Game
Even though professional athletes are entitled to work comp, it is a lot more complex for an average worker injured while performing recreational activities linked to work.
Johnathan Jordan, a middle school science teacher filed against Calumet School District No. 132 as a result of an injury he received playing basketball after school. A key aspect of this case is that voluntary programs are usually not compensated as work injuries.
Even though Jordan was not required by his job to play, strong pressure from the school principal, who had asked him three times before he agreed, established that the "voluntary" program was not as voluntary as it seemed. These requests by his boss, combined with upcoming performance reviews, topped off with the fact that Jordan had not yet received a contract to teach for the next school year, gave him reason to believe not playing would negatively impact his career. These factors allow a reasonable person to feel that the participation arose out of employment, and not recreational interest.
The lesson here is that even a volunteer event can be considered mandatory if the outside pressures make the employee feel that they do not actually have a choice to participate or not.
Judgment: Benefits Awarded
4. Truck Driver Burns Feet in Crockpot
The employer must accept the results of hazards in the workplace, which vary widely depending on the job. Police Officers may face fights, maintenance workers have to deal with Lockout / Tagout for heavy mechanical parts, and truck drivers must deal with not only the hazards of the road but the hazards of living away from home.
Another exercise in determining what hazards were caused by employment occurred in 2014. Awoken by his trainer, the newly hired truck driver, James Jarrell started to step down from his bunk in the sleeper cab of the truck and stepped into a crock-pot of hot water. He was not yet dressed for work or logging work time, but had been told by his trainer it was time to get up and perform a pre-trip inspection.
The courts found evidence throughout the investigation that the trainer had advised Jarrell to sleep in the truck to get an early start. In combination with being awoken with instructions to perform a work task, this was enough to conclude that his presence in the truck created an association of injury, the hazard, and employment.
A distinction in this case is that he was "furthering the interest of the employer" in his actions. In other cases, such as one case where a driver slipped while taking a shower, it was determined that personal grooming, for example, was not associated with employment, and those injuries were not work-related as a result.
Judgment: Benefits Awarded
5. Obese Worker Stuck in Cafeteria Booth
To wrap up our list, here is a case where personal condition meets the workplace.
Betsy Waters was a larger woman, a condition entirely unrelated to her employment, but which contributed directly to the injury. When she became injured at a work luncheon as a result of becoming stuck in a cafeteria booth, however, the workplace became a factor. Waters had to pull and twist to escape the table and bench she was sitting at, with so much force that it resulted in a broken femur and strains.
The Work Comp board ruled this accident a result of a personal condition that was not covered by workers' compensation. Waters, however, appealed this decision. The Court of Appeals then found that as long as the booth contributed to the injury, the personal condition was not the sole cause, and therefore reversed the decision of the board. If the workplace contributed to the injury, even a little, then the personal condition could still result in a workplace injury eligible for compensation.
This final case is a great example of why workers' compensation is not clear cut because even the entities that make the decisions on these cases do not always agree. It also shows that even if a personal issue is present, employers take on certain liabilities for the environment that may contribute to injury. While this fact should not be used to exclude employees, it should be considered when evaluating risks in the workplace.
Judgment: Benefits Awarded
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.