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Workers’ comp reform requires judges to decide whether an injury was caused by work, not just while at work


Near the end of a workday, Jason Pope’s supervisor asked him to move a motorcycle to a showroom on an upper level of the dealership where Jason worked.  He moved the bike to the upper showroom, then tripped walking down the stairs in the dealer’s building. In the fall, he fractured his ankle, which required surgery. He was off work for nine weeks and needed physical therapy over seven months.

Jason filed a workers’ compensation claim, which was denied because Jason failed to prove to the workers’ comp judge that his injury arose (1) out of his employment and (2) in the course of his employment. Under Missouri workers’ compensation law prior to 2005, an employee injured while on the job was not obligated to prove these two factors. Under the old law, workers’ compensation was administered under “no-fault”  system, in which the employer was usually liable unless the employer could show that the injury was not real or was not related to employment.

After the denial of Jason’s claim, he appealed to the Missouri Labor and Industrial Commission, which is a special court that hears appeals of decisions of administrative law judges in Missouri’s workers’ compensation system. The Labor and Industrial Commission reversed the administrative law judge’s decision, ruling the injury to be covered by workers’ comp. The employer then appealed to the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, which issued its affirming opinion in  Pope v. Gateway to the West.

The 2005 changes to Missouri’s workers’ comp statutes took away the presumption in favor of coverage of employee injury claims. Part of the target of the “reform” was to prevent employers from paying for injuries that may have happened at work but which were not caused by the job. For instance, when an employee was walking across a parking lot and a “pop” occurred in his knee, the injury might not be covered by workers’ compensation, since it occurred in a normal life activity–walking–not as the result of a hazard or risk associated with the job.

In another situation arising after 2005, an employee was injured in a fall as she made coffee in a breakroom at work. Her medical records indicated that the employee’s shoes caused her to fall; the court held that the employee failed to prove that her injury was caused by a risk related to her employment.

The Western District framed the issue this way:

we consider whether Pope was injured because he was at work as opposed to becoming injured merely while he was at work.

The court sifted the facts that Jason presented, noting that Jason was following instructions from his supervisor to move motorcycles into the upper showroom. When he fell, he was on his way to check with his supervisor to make sure that he was done for the day. He couldn’t reach the supervisor without walking down stairs. His boots didn’t cause him to fall. His own physiology did not cause his injury. The court concluded that these facts  (and some others)

reasonably support a finding that Pope’s injury was causally connected to his work activity, i. e., a risk related to his employment as opposed to a risk to which he was equally exposed in his normal, non-employment life.

 

Before the 2005 amendments to the workers’ compensation statutes, the cause of Jason Pope’s injury would not have been an issue. The employer’s insurance company would have paid the same claim that it would have ended up paying, sooner though and without two appeals.

Policy should not be made on the basis of an isolated anecdote, such as this true story about Jason Pope.  As the number of similar cases accumulates, the workers’ comp insurance industry will be in a position to determine whether the 2005 reforms save money for employers and are of a general benefit to the economy. For now, there can be no question that the burden of the reforms falls on injured employees, some of them unable to work, and health care providers which are awaiting payment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When you sue, you’d better ask for everything


Johnny Ray Chadd was the city administrator for Lake Ozark. City administrators in Missouri are always a vote or two away from getting fired, and Chadd was on the brink. On a vote to fire him in 2005, after he had served less than one year, the aldermen were deadlocked and the mayor cast the tie-breaking vote to let him go.

Chadd sued, claiming that the applicable Missouri statute and the city ordinance required the vote of a majority of the aldermen to remove him as a city officer. The mayor’s vote was irrelevant. In 2007, the appellate court ordered that Chadd be reinstated. He was rehired and immediately fired by the unanimous vote of the aldermen.

Chadd sued again, seeking back wages for the period between his first firing and the second, also alleging that he was wrongfully terminated. Apparently because Missouri law characterizes the employment relationship as at the will of the employer, Chadd alleged that his termination fell under the vague term “prima facie tort,” a legal theory that has never gotten any traction in Missouri courts.

The trial court threw out Chadd’s suit on Lake Ozark’s motion for summary judgment.

Chadd didn’t sue for back wages in the first suit, so he was barred from bringing up the issue now under the principle of res judicata. This principle means that courts will not consider claims that either were or could have been raised in a previous suit between the same parties. The trial court indicated that Chadd had been obligated make his claim for back wages in his first suit, where he was successful.

The prima facie tort claim also failed. Missouri’s at-will employment doctrine applies to situations where there is no employment contract for a specific term. A worker cannot win a suit for damages resulting from termination unless the termination violates some other statute, such as a statute protecting whistle-blowers or persons who are fired for filing workers’ compensation or racial discrimination claims, for example.  Calling a wrongful termination claim a prima facie tort doesn’t get around the at-will employment doctrine.

The Court of Appeals upheld the summary judgment in this opinion, Chadd v. Lake Ozark.

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