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Risk Scenario

The Scales of Justice

Two employee injuries at the same company produce two very different outcomes.
By: | August 26, 2014 • 9 min read
Risk Scenarios are created by Risk & Insurance editors along with leading industry partners. The hypothetical, yet realistic stories, showcase emerging risks that can result in significant losses if not properly addressed.

Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.

Frankie and Hector

“It’s a great day for the Irish!”

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Whether they loved him or found him annoying, workers in the seafood and meat departments in the Better Harvest grocery store in Boston’s Back Bay knew the meaning of that booming morning greeting very well.

It declared that boisterous fish cleaner and erstwhile fish-counter salesman Frankie Burns was at work, and he wanted everybody to know it.

Despite his sometimes jarring presence, most people loved Frankie. Frankie knew seafood, having worked on his family’s cod boat when he was younger. Now, at 55, he provided a knowledge of local fish and shellfish that was an asset in a store catering to the Back Bay’s educated, prosperous consumers.

Barrel-chested, with forearms, shoulders and biceps solidly built from years of manual labor, Frankie cheerfully and proudly unloaded the tubs of hake, pollock and flounder sold by the market.

This May morning, though, would prove to be a wake-up call for the hard-living Frankie. As he had thousands of times before, Frankie hoisted a heavy tub of iced pollock up onto the fish-cutting counter. This time, though, his back gave out.

“Whoa,” Frankie said as he clutched his lower back, wincing at the piercing, unfamiliar pain there.

Whoa indeed.

Testing revealed that Frankie had aggravated a chronic degenerative back condition. His claim was found to be compensable.

Scenario Partner

Scenario Partner

With 180 stores nationwide and close to $8 billion in sales, Better Harvest’s human resources department was well-versed in the amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act that were enacted in 2008.

Following Better Harvest’s well-documented procedures, and at Frankie’s reluctant request, Back Bay store manager Gracie Walker granted Frankie an accommodation under the ADA.

For now, Frankie was done hoisting ice-filled fish tubs. The store would need to find another fish cutter as the heaviest thing Frankie would be permitted to lift would be paper-wrapped one pound cod fillets.

“Hey, a job’s a job,” Frankie said, as he hoisted a beer and a Fenway Frank with his brother Petey at a Sox game that summer.

————–

Hector Velasquez was the fish cutter in Better Harvest’s Brentwood, Calif. store.

At 53, Hector’s idea of a good time was to go Zydeco dancing with his latest and greatest girlfriend Vera at the Puma Club in nearby Venice Beach.

That’s exactly what Hector was doing on a steaming hot California night during a performance of his favorite Zydeco band, the Vallejo Oyster Crackers. But Hector made a misstep due to a slippery combination of spilled beer and crushed peanut shells on the dance floor of the Puma Club.

Vera tumbled to the ground with Hector but popped right back up, adjusting her hair and skirt in the process. Hector wasn’t so lucky.

“Honey, are you hurt?” Vera said.

Hector, whose love of beer, fried seafood and tortillas had left him with a stout belly, tried to get up but couldn’t.

Another dancer, seeing Hector in distress, stopped Hector from trying to move.

“Stay still, man,” the Zydeco dancer said. “You might have really hurt yourself.”

Hector’s fellow dancer put his hand on Hector’s belly to still his movements and pushed a chair cushion under his head.

“Be still a minute, man, and breathe — breathe against the pain,” the Zydeco dancer said.

Hector looked up at the man thankfully and started to breathe more deeply, his beer belly rising and falling with each labored breath.

Hector couldn’t make it to work the following Monday and filed for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.

Tough Medicine

Hector rested for a few days, trying to dull the pain with Ibuprofen and light beer. Given that he wasn’t hurt at work, Hector didn’t go to a doctor, thinking he might end up bearing the cost of treatment that he couldn’t afford.

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On the Thursday after his injury, Hector got a ride from a buddy and came back to work. Hector is self-medicating, taking unhealthy doses of Ibuprofen in an attempt to perform his job.

He barely made it through Thursday and Friday, depending on co-workers to cover for him. Over the weekend, home resting but still in substantial pain, Hector faced the music.

“There’s no way, man,” he said, looking at his bent-over body in the bathroom mirror.

“I gotta talk to somebody.”

The following Monday, Dave Wagner, the general manager of the Brentwood Better Harvest store, got a knock on his office door.

Being the GM of this store, with its affluent and demanding customer base, was no joke. Dave Wagner was one busy man.

“Hector, what’s up?” Dave said.

“I need to talk to you, Mr. Wagner. It’s my back. I hurt it bad the other night and I can’t do any lifting, not much anyway,” Hector said.




Dave did some rapid-fire mental calculations as he gestured Hector to a chair.

“Sit down Hector, sit down,” he said.

Hector moved slowly to sit down, telling Dave everything he needed to know about how badly Hector was hurting.

“I’ll tell you what Hector, I’ll tell you what,” Dave said, as memories of Better Harvest HR emails concerning the ADA flashed through his formidable memory.

“Hold on a sec,” Dave said and popped down at his desk. In two clicks and a couple of scrolls, Dave scanned some emails from HR.

“Reasonable accommodation” is the phrase that stuck in Dave’s mind as he rapidly scanned the emails.

“You don’t have to lift,” Dave said, turning back to Hector. “You can work the counter. How does that sound?”

Hector, although in substantial pain, brightened some.

“That sounds good Mr. Wagner, thank you,” Hector said. But Hector’s feeble attempts to stand up sent Dave a message.

“Talk to Marcus and tell him what I said and I’ll talk to him too,” Dave said, as Hector made his way out.

As Hector went off to find Marcus, the manager of the seafood department, Dave engaged in professional, removed reflection.

“We’ll see what’s reasonable. I’ll give it three months,” he said to himself, before his vibrating cellphone distracted him.

“Cripe,” the harried Dave said to himself, looking at the number and picking up his phone.

“Dave Wagner,” he said impatiently to whoever was on the line.

Three months came and went, and Dave had to make a call. Hector just wasn’t that strong on the counter.

You had to have serious customer service skills to handle Brentwood and Beverly Hills customers and Hector was flailing. Complaints about him were coming at Dave from all sides, customers, co-workers, you name it.

“Reasonable means reasonable,” Dave said to himself as, worn down with complaints about Hector’s customer service shortcomings, he moved to terminate him.

The Wheel Turns

After his firing, it didn’t take long for the befuddled Hector to hook up with a gifted, ambitious employment rights attorney, Lucia Yamamoto, a graduate of Berkeley Law and a passionate defender of workers’ rights.

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This is how the pre-trial negotiations went between Yamamoto’s firm, The Workers’ Rights Center, and the firm that did defense work for Better Harvest’s employment liability carrier, Apex Insurance.

“Okay guys, this is an easy one,” Yamamoto said on the phone call with the Apex defense team.

“We don’t see it that way,” was the game response from Ed Kleindinst, the defense lead for Apex’s law firm, Kleindinst, Evans, Hale & Brown.

“Oh really?” Yamamoto said, her derision palpable.

“You got two guys, practically the same age. They’re both working the same job. I mean this is beautiful,” she said.

“You accommodate one guy, and he’s still got a job,” Yamamoto said.

“Your GM in the Boston store continues to accommodate him, according to widely disseminated company policy…,” she continued.

“I don’t think you’re in a position to know how widely disseminated it was,” Kleindinst responded.

“Like it matters,” Yamamoto shot back.

“The other guy, same company, you terminate after 90 days even though it’s not presenting an undue hardship to your business. Instead, he was terminated because the manager felt he had accommodated him for long enough, which runs contrary to the company policy,” Yamamoto says.

“Been there 20 years, married with four children. Never been disciplined in his working life. Hello? Are you guys still there?” she said.

“We’re here,” Kleindinst said, this time with a little less vigor, pushing the mute button and rolling his eyes at his co-counsel in one of the Kleindinst, Evans, Hale & Brown conference rooms.

One of the partners jotted a note on a sheet of paper and slid it in front of Kleindinst.

There was a pause — orchestrated on the part of both Yamamoto and Kleindinst.

“Well, you’re not saying anything,” Yamamoto said.

“Go on, please, counsel,” Kleindinst said.

“Oh I’ll go on, I could go on all day with this one,” Yamamoto said.

“Two million,” she said.

“Oh come on!” Kleindinst said.

“See you in court!” Yamamoto replied.

Kleindinst’s partner jerks his head at the sheet of paper, trying to focus Kleindinst.

“One million,” Kleindinst said.

“One and six or we go to court and no more of this,” Yamamoto said.

There is another pause.

“Gentlemen, are we done?” said Yamamoto.

Kleindinst looked at his co-counsel, who nodded and pulled back in his chair.

“Yes, we’re done,” Kleindinst said.

***

“I really, really don’t like her,” Kleindinst said to his partner after he hung up.

“Like it matters,” his partner said.

Bar-Lessons-Learned---Partner's-Content-V1b

Risk & Insurance® partnered with Sedgwick to produce this scenario. Below are Sedgwick’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance®.

1. Medical review: Make sure you request and document medical reviews of any request for leave or accommodation under the Family Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act as part of the overall interactive accommodation process.

2. Consistency: Different injured employees with debilitating chronic conditions should be treated with consistency under the Americans with Disabilities Act, regardless of whether their need for accommodation is due to a work-related injury, a non-occupational injury or illness or for another medical need.

3. Document, document, document: Companies need to make sure that standard procedures regarding leave or accommodation under the Family Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act are in place, up to date and triggering interactive process review – as well as clearly communicated to employees. Companies also need to document that they have communicated changes to those policies in a comprehensive and timely manner. A robust information management platform is key to supporting the process and necessary documentation.

4. The leave option: Although the goal of ADA/ADAAA is to keep people at work and every effort should be made to meet an accommodation request, supervisors need to keep in mind that there may be cases where a workplace accommodation isn’t possible or advisable due to the significant hardship it would place on their business; time off from work may be the only option. Shoe-horning an employee into a task they are unfit for may do more harm than good.

5. Disabled means disabled: Under the law, even if a condition is “controlled” by medication or some other treatment method, a disability is still a disability. Be very careful not to treat someone with a chronic condition differently just because they’re asymptomatic.

Additional Partner Resources

ADA Accommodation Services

Sedgwick Connection Blog

Webinar: ADA/ADAAA Challenges – Are You Compliant?

Watch Sedgwick delve deeper into ADA compliance with our sister publication, Human Resource Executive®.



Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Pharma Under Fire

Opioids Give Rise to Liability Epidemic

Opioids were supposed to help. Instead, their addictive power harmed many, and calls for accountability are broadening.
By: | May 1, 2018 • 8 min read

The opioid epidemic devastated families and flattened entire communities.

The Yale School of Medicine estimates that deaths are nearly doubling annually: “Between 2015 and 2016, drug overdose deaths went from 33,095 to 59,000, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States. That number is expected to continue unabated for the next   several years.”

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That’s roughly 160 deaths every day — and it’s a count that’s increasing daily.

In addition to deaths, the number of Americans struggling with an opioid disorder disease (the official name for opioid addiction) is staggering.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that 2 million people in the United States suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers, and roughly one-third of those people will “graduate” to heroin addiction.

Conversely, 80 percent of heroin addicts became addicted to opioids after being prescribed opioids.

As if the human toll wasn’t devastating enough, NIDA estimates that addiction costs reach “$78.5 billion a year, including the costs of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.”

Shep Tapasak, managing principal, Integro Insurance Brokers

With numbers like that, families are not the only ones left picking up the pieces. Municipalities, states, and the federal government are strained with heavy demand for social services and crushing expenditures related to opioid addiction.

Despite the amount of money being spent, services are inadequate and too short in duration. Wait times are so long that some people literally die waiting.

Public sector leaders saw firsthand the range and potency of the epidemic, and were among the first to seek a legal reckoning with the manufacturers of  synthetic painkillers.

Seeking redress for their financial burden, some municipalities, states and the federal government filed lawsuits against big pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers. To date, there are more than 100 lawsuits on court dockets.

States such as Ohio, West Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Arkansas have been hit hard by the epidemic. In Arkansas alone, 72 counties, 15 cities, and the state filed suit, naming 65 defendants. In Pennsylvania, 16 counties, Philadelphia, and Commonwealth officials have filed lawsuits.

Forty one states also have banded together to subpoena information from some drug manufacturers.

Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, recently told reporters that the banded effort seeks to “change corporate behavior, so that the industry can no longer do what I think it’s been doing, which is turning a blind eye to the effects of dumping these drugs in the communities.”

The volume of legal actions is growing, and some of the Federal cases have been bound together in what is called multidistrict litigation (MDL). These cases will be heard by a judge in Ohio. Plaintiffs hope for a settlement that will provide funding to be used to help thwart the opioid epidemic.

“From a societal perspective, this is obviously a big and impactful issue,”  said Jim George,  a managing director and global claims head with Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. “A lot of people are suffering in connection with this, and it won’t go away anytime soon.

“Insurance, especially those in liability, will be addressing this for a long time. This has been building over five or six years, and we are just now seeing the beginning stages of liability suits.” 

Basis for Lawsuits

The lawsuits filed to date are based on allegations concerning: What pharma knew or didn’t know; what it should have known; failure to monitor size and frequency of opioid orders, misrepresentation in marketing about the addictive nature of opioids; and false financial disclosures.

Opioid manufacturers, distributors and large drugstore chains together represent a $13 billion-a-year industry, meaning the stakes are high, and the pockets deep. Many have compared these lawsuits to the tobacco suits of the ’90s.

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But even that comparison may pale. As difficult as it is to quit smoking, that process is less arduous than the excruciating and often impossible-to-overcome opioid addiction.

Francis Collins, a physician-geneticist who heads the National Institutes of Health, said in a recorded session with the Washington Post: “One really needs to understand the diabolical way that this particular set of compounds rewires the brain in order to appreciate how those who become addicted really are in a circumstance where they can no more [by their own free will] get rid of the addiction than they can get free of needing to eat or drink.”

“Pharma and its supply chain need to know that this is here now. It’s not emerging, it’s here, and it’s being tried. It is a present risk.” — Nancy Bewlay, global chief underwriting officer for casualty, XL Catlin

The addiction creates an absolutely compelling drive that will cause people to do things against any measure of good judgment, said Collins, but the need to do them is “overwhelming.”

Documented knowledge of that chemistry could be devastating to insureds.

“It’s about what big pharma knew — or should have known.  A key allegation is that opioids were aggressively marketed as the clear answer or miracle cure for pain,” said Shep Tapasak, managing principal, Integro Insurance Brokers.

These cases, Tapasak said, have the potential to be severe. “This type of litigation boils down to a “profits over people” strategy, which historically has resonated with juries.”

Broadening Liability

As suits progress, all sides will be waiting and watching to see what case law stems from them. In the meantime, insurance watchers are predicting that the scope of these suits will broaden to include other players in the supply chain including manufacturers, distribution services, retail pharmacies, hospitals, physician practices, clinics, clinical laboratories and marketing agencies.

Litigation is, to some extent, about who can pay. In these cases, there are several places along the distribution chain where plaintiffs will seek relief.

Nancy Bewlay, global chief underwriting officer for casualty, XL Catlin

Nancy Bewlay, XL Catlin’s global chief underwriting officer for casualty, said that insurers and their insureds need to pay close attention to this trend.

“Pharma and its supply chain need to know that this is here now. It’s not emerging, it’s here, and it’s being tried. It is a present risk,” she said.

“We, as insurers who identify emerging risks, have to communicate to clients. We like to be on the forefront and, if we can, positively influence the outcome for our clients in terms of getting ahead of their risks.”

In addition to all aspects of the distribution chain, plaintiffs could launch suits against directors and officers based on allegations that they are ultimately responsible for what the company knew or should have known, or that they misrepresented their products or signed off on misleading financial statements.

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Shareholders, too, could take aim at directors and officers for loss of profits or misleading statements related to litigation.

Civil litigation could pave the way, in some specific instances, for criminal charges. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who in 2015 became the first state attorney general to file suit against a prescription drug maker, has been quoted as saying that if evidence in civil suits points to criminal behavior, he won’t hesitate to file those charges as well.

Governing, a publication for municipalities and states, quoted Hood in late 2017 as saying, “If we get into those emails, and executives are in the chain knowing what they’ve unleashed on the American public, I’m going to kick it over to a criminal lawsuit. I’ve been to too many funerals.”

Insurers and insureds can act now to get ahead of this rising wave of liability.

It may be appropriate to conduct a review of policy underwriting and pricing. XL Catlin’s Bewlay said, “We are not writing as if everyone is a pharma manufacturer. Our perception of what is happening is that everyone is being held accountable as if they are the manufacturer.

“The reality is that when insurers look at the pharma industry and each part of the supply chain, including the pharma companies, those in the chain of distribution, transportation, sales, marketing and retail, there are different considerations and different liabilities for each. This could change the underwriting and affect pricing.”

Bewlay also suggests focusing on communications between claims teams and underwriters and keeping a strong line of communication open with insureds, too.

“We are here to partner with insureds, and we talk to them and advise them about this crisis. We encourage them to talk about it with their risk managers.”

Tapasak from Integro encourages insureds to educate themselves and be a part of the solution. “The laws are evolving,” he said. “Make absolutely certain you know your respective state laws. It’s not enough to know about the crisis, you must know the trends. Be part of the solution and get as much education as possible.

“Most states have ASHRM chapters that are helping their members to stay current on both passed and pending legislation. Health care facilities and providers want to do the right thing and get educated. And at the same time, there will likely be an uptick in frivolous claims, so it’s important to defend the claims that are defensible.”

Social Service Risk

In addition to supply chain concerns, insurers and insureds are concerned that even those whose mission it is to help could be at risk.

Hailed as a lifesaver, and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the drug Naloxone, can be administered to someone who is overdosing on opioids.  Naloxone prevents overdose by blocking opioid receptor sites and reversing the effects of the overdose.

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Some industry experts are concerned that police and emergency responders could incur liability after administering Naloxone.

But according to the U.S. Department of Justice, “From a legal standpoint, it would be extremely difficult to win a lawsuit against an officer who administers Naloxone in good faith and in the course of employment. … Such immunity applies to … other professional responders.”

Especially hard hit are foster care agencies, both by increased child placements and stretched budgets. More details in our related coverage.

While the number of suits is growing and their aim broadening, experts think that some good will come of the litigation. Settlements will fund services for the addicted and opioid risk awareness is higher than ever. &

Mercedes Ott is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]