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View From the Bench

Workers’ Comp Docket

Significant workers' compensation legal decisions from around the country.
By: | March 2, 2017 • 9 min read

Exposure to Pigeon Droppings Results in Compensable Claim

Lankford v. Newton County, et al., No. SD34269 (Mo. Ct. App. 01/17/17)

Ruling: The Missouri Court of Appeals held that an investigator suffered a compensable occupational disease.

What it means: In Missouri, a worker does not have to establish an “unequal exposure” for an occupational disease claim. The worker must show that the disease he suffered is not an “ordinary disease of life to which the general public is exposed outside of the employment.”

Summary: An investigator for the prosecutor’s office smoked in the employer’s basement. He began going to the roof of the building to smoke at the suggestion of an assistant prosecutor. He said that he preferred the roof because it was quiet, and he could think about the case he was working on. While on the roof, coworkers sought him out to talk about work-related matters.

The roof was a popular place for pigeons, and pigeon droppings accumulated there. The investigator was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was also diagnosed with diseases relating to the exposure to pigeon droppings.

He underwent surgery and had a stroke, which left him unable to work. The investigator filed a workers’ compensation claim, asserting that his exposure to pigeon droppings caused an injury to his lungs and respiratory system. Subsequently, the investigator died due to complications of pneumonia and COPD. The Missouri Court of Appeals held that the investigator’s occupational disease was compensable.

The employer argued that the investigator’s duties did not require his presence on the employer’s roof, and the employer did not receive a benefit from the investigator retreating from his job to the roof to be alone and smoke 10 times per day.

The court found that the investigator’s exposure to pigeons and pigeon droppings arose out of and in the course of his employment. Experts agreed that the investigator underwent lung surgery to treat the infection caused by the bird droppings. The court found that the evidence establishes that the investigator’s work activities caused the exposure to the infection.

Award of Benefits Does Not Confer Immunity to Coworker

Entila, et al. v. Cook, et al., No. 92581-0 (Wash. 01/12/17)

Ruling: The Washington Supreme Court held that a coworker was not immune from a third-party suit because he was not acting in the course and scope of his employment when the accident occurred.

What it means: In Washington, the fact that a worker received workers’ compensation benefits plays no role in determining a coworker’s immunity in a third-party suit.

Summary: A worker for Boeing finished work for the day and was walking across the employer’s access road when he was struck by a coworker who was driving his vehicle out of the employee parking lot. The worker received workers’ compensation benefits for his injuries and sued the coworker.

The coworker argued that he was immune from suit because he was acting in the course of his employment and Boeing’s employer immunity shielded him from liability. The Washington Supreme Court held that the coworker was not immune from suit.

The court explained that if an injured worker qualified for benefits, the employer cannot be sued. However, the worker’s receipt of benefits does not control third-party immunity. The court explained that a third-party coworker is not eligible for immunity unless he is in the “same employ” as the injured worker. “Same employ” can be shown when the coworker is acting in the course of employment.

The court sent the case back to the trial court.

Passing Mention of Soreness Does Not Constitute Notice of Work Injury

Ross v. American Ordnance, et al., No. 16-0787 (Iowa Ct. App. 01/11/17, unpublished)

Ruling: In an unpublished decision, the Iowa Court of Appeals held that a worker’s claim was barred because she failed to provide sufficient notice of her injury to her employer.

What it means: In Iowa, a worker must give her employer notice of an injury within 90 days unless the employer has actual knowledge of the injury.

Summary: A worker for American Ordnance claimed that she told her supervisor that she hurt her shoulder when a box fell over. The supervisor said that the worker said her shoulder hurt a little bit. The supervisor asked if she wanted to call an ambulance or see a doctor, but she declined.

The worker continued to have problems with her shoulder. She was eventually diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff that required surgery. More than 90 days after the alleged injury, the worker filed a workers’ compensation claim. The Iowa Court of Appeals held that her claim was barred because she failed to provide American sufficient notice of her claim.

The court found that the worker had to do more than tell the supervisor that her shoulder was sore. She did not tell him there was a reasonable possibility that her condition was related to her work. The court found that American did not have actual knowledge of a reasonable possibility that her injury was related to her work.

The worker argued that the discovery rule applied to her claim. Under the discovery rule, the 90-day notice period would not begin to run until the worker recognized the nature, seriousness, and probable compensable nature of the condition.

The court rejected the argument, finding that the worker recognized the nature, seriousness, and probable compensable character of her injury on the date it occurred, so she informed her supervisor at the time of her injury.

A dissenting judge found that the worker provided sufficient notice to the employer when she said that a box fell and that she hurt her shoulder. The judge pointed out that the supervisor responded by offering to call for an ambulance.

Worker Wins Benefits for Blackout Accident Caused by Non-Work Factors

Nuclear Diagnostic Products, 116 NYWCLR 211 (N.Y. W.C.B., Panel 2016)

Ruling: The New York Workers’ Compensation Board held that a driver, who crashed his work vehicle after losing consciousness while driving, sustained a compensable accident under the WCL.

What it means: In New York, where a worker loses consciousness while driving the employer’s vehicle in the course of his employment, he is entitled to a presumption that his accident arose out of his employment.

Summary: The board held that a driver who crashed his work vehicle after losing consciousness while driving sustained a compensable accident. The driver reported to hospital staff that he started coughing, lost control of the car, and then remembered someone waking him up after the accident.

He also reported that he had been coughing due to an asthmatic reaction to a new air freshener in his house. The board explained that because the driver’s accident occurred in the course of his employment he was entitled to a presumption that the accident arose out of his employment.

Although a review of the medical records indicated that the driver lost consciousness due to a coughing attack caused by his asthma condition, the driving of the employer’s vehicle was an added risk of employment. This added risk caused the injuries to his neck and back. Therefore, the driver’s claim was compensable.

Worker Denied Benefits for PTSD After Death of Infant Client

Griffin v. Luzerne County Children and Youth, 31 PAWCLR 233 (Pa. W.C.A.B. 2016)

Ruling: The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board affirmed the workers’ compensation judge’s decision denying benefits to a caseworker who alleged she sustained post-traumatic stress disorder and depression after the traumatic death of a young baby she was supervising.

What it means: In Pennsylvania, the traumatic death of a baby that a caseworker is supervising is not sufficiently extraordinary or unusual within the context of the caseworker’s specific employment to rise to the level of an abnormal working condition.

Summary: The board affirmed the WCJ’s decision denying benefits to a caseworker who alleged that she sustained post-traumatic stress disorder and depression after the traumatic death of a young baby she was supervising.

Evidence indicated the caseworker had been at the baby’s home and held the baby. After she left, the parents began drinking, and ultimately, the mom closed the baby in the recliner and left him there all night.

On appeal, the caseworker argued the WCJ erred in finding that she failed to establish abnormal working conditions. Rejecting this argument, the board explained that the events in this case, while indisputably tragic, were not found to be sufficiently extraordinary or unusual, within the context of the caseworker’s specific employment, to rise to the level of an abnormal working condition. The caseworker had to deal with abused and neglected children, and her agency was charged with reviewing these types of scenarios.

Relying on a prior case holding that the more fact intensive the inquiry, the more deference a reviewing court should give to the WCJ’s findings, the board found no sound basis for disturbing the WCJ’s decision.

Evidence Establishes That Mosquito Bite at Work Led to Compensable West Nile

Allen v. Graphic Packaging International, Inc., No. 51,080-WCA (La. Ct. App. 01/11/17)

Ruling: The Louisiana Court of Appeal held that an operator established a work-related accident when he was bitten by a mosquito and contracted West Nile encephalitis. The operator was entitled to temporary total disability benefits.

What it means: In Louisiana, work-related insect bites or stings can be a compensable accident under the workers’ compensation law.

Summary: An assistant operator for Graphic Packaging International was sitting in the break room of the plant when he was bitten by a mosquito. Days later, he had fatigue and fever-related symptoms. He was eventually diagnosed with West Nile encephalitis. He filed a workers’ compensation claim. The Louisiana Court of Appeal held that he established a work-related accident.

The court found that the operator showed it was more probable than not that he was bitten on the job by a mosquito carrier of West Nile. The widespread outbreak of West Nile throughout the area and the summer conditions supporting the mosquito population demonstrated that the operator was exposed to other mosquitoes in the days before and after the accident. Also, the evidence and common sense established that the operator was exposed to mosquitoes away from work.

However, the operator’s time in the plant during the week before he experienced symptoms allowed for a conclusion that he was probably bitten during his 56 hours at work. Large doors to the plant were open allowing for exposure of mosquitoes to workers.

Also, the operator worked early in the morning and later in the afternoon, which were times that mosquitoes were the most active as confirmed by experts. The operator also pointed out that a coworker also contracted West Nile at work.

The court found that the operator was not entitled to permanent and total disability benefits before a proper evaluation of rehabilitation possibilities. The court found that he was temporarily totally disabled.

Christina Lumbreras is a Legal Editor for Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Report: Manufacturing

More Robots Enter Into Manufacturing Industry

With more jobs utilizing technology advancements, manufacturing turns to cobots to help ease talent gaps.
By: | May 1, 2018 • 6 min read

The U.S. manufacturing industry is at a crossroads.

Faced with a shortfall of as many as two million workers between now and 2025, the sector needs to either reinvent itself by making it a more attractive career choice for college and high school graduates or face extinction. It also needs to shed its image as a dull, unfashionable place to work, where employees are stuck in dead-end repetitive jobs.

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Added to that are the multiple risks caused by the increasing use of automation, sensors and collaborative robots (cobots) in the manufacturing process, including product defects and worker injuries. That’s not to mention the increased exposure to cyber attacks as manufacturers and their facilities become more globally interconnected through the use of smart technology.

If the industry wishes to continue to move forward at its current rapid pace, then manufacturers need to work with schools, governments and the community to provide educational outreach and apprenticeship programs. They must change the perception of the industry and attract new talent. They also need to understand and to mitigate the risks presented by the increased use of technology in the manufacturing process.

“Loss of knowledge due to movement of experienced workers, negative perception of the manufacturing industry and shortages of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and skilled production workers are driving the talent gap,” said Ben Dollar, principal, Deloitte Consulting.

“The risks associated with this are broad and span the entire value chain — [including]  limitations to innovation, product development, meeting production goals, developing suppliers, meeting customer demand and quality.”

The Talent Gap

Manufacturing companies are rapidly expanding. With too few skilled workers coming in to fill newly created positions, the talent gap is widening. That has been exacerbated by the gradual drain of knowledge and expertise as baby boomers retire and a decline in technical education programs in public high schools.

Ben Dollar, principal, Deloitte Consulting

“Most of the millennials want to work for an Amazon, Google or Yahoo, because they seem like fun places to work and there’s a real sense of community involvement,” said Dan Holden, manager of corporate risk and insurance, Daimler Trucks North America. “In contrast, the manufacturing industry represents the ‘old school’ where your father and grandfather used to work.

“But nothing could be further from the truth: We offer almost limitless opportunities in engineering and IT, working in fields such as electric cars and autonomous driving.”

To dispel this myth, Holden said Daimler’s Educational Outreach Program assists qualified organizations that support public high school educational programs in STEM, CTE (career technical education) and skilled trades’ career development.

It also runs weeklong technology schools in its manufacturing facilities to encourage students to consider manufacturing as a vocation, he said.

“It’s all essentially a way of introducing ourselves to the younger generation and to present them with an alternative and rewarding career choice,” he said. “It also gives us the opportunity to get across the message that just because we make heavy duty equipment doesn’t mean we can’t be a fun and educational place to work.”

Rise of the Cobot

Automation undoubtedly helps manufacturers increase output and improve efficiency by streamlining production lines. But it’s fraught with its own set of risks, including technical failure, a compromised manufacturing process or worse — shutting down entire assembly lines.

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More technologically advanced machines also require more skilled workers to operate and maintain them. Their absence can in turn hinder the development of new manufacturing products and processes.

Christina Villena, vice president of risk solutions, The Hanover Insurance Group, said the main risk of using cobots is bodily injury to their human coworkers. These cobots are robots that share a physical workspace and interact with humans. To overcome the problem of potential injury, Villena said, cobots are placed in safety cages or use force-limited technology to prevent hazardous contact.

“With advancements in technology, such as the Cloud, there are going to be a host of cyber and other risks associated with them.” — David Carlson, U.S. manufacturing and automobile practice leader, Marsh

“Technology must be in place to prevent cobots from exerting excessive force against a human or exposing them to hazardous tools or chemicals,” she said. “Traditional robots operate within a safety cage to prevent dangerous contact. Failure or absence of these guards has led to injuries and even fatalities.”

The increasing use of interconnected devices and the Cloud to control and collect data from industrial control systems can also leave manufacturers exposed to hacking, said David Carlson, Marsh’s U.S. manufacturing and automobile practice leader. Given the relatively new nature of cyber as a risk, however, he said coverage is still a gray area that must be assessed further.

“With advancements in technology, such as the Cloud, there are going to be a host of cyber and other risks associated with them,” he said. “Therefore, companies need to think beyond the traditional risks, such as workers’ compensation and product liability.”

Another threat, said Bill Spiers, vice president, risk control consulting practice leader, Lockton Companies, is any malfunction of the software used to operate cobots. Then there is the machine not being able to cope with the increased workload when production is ramped up, he said.

“If your software goes wrong, it can stop the machine working or indeed the whole manufacturing process,” he said. “[Or] you might have a worker who is paid by how much they can produce in an hour who decides to turn up the dial, causing the machine to go into overdrive and malfunction.”

Potential Solutions

Spiers said risk managers need to produce a heatmap of their potential exposures in the workplace attached to the use of cobots in the manufacturing process, including safety and business interruption. This can also extend to cyber liability, he said.

“You need to understand the risk, if it’s controllable and, indeed, if it’s insurable,” he said. “By carrying out a full risk assessment, you can determine all of the relevant issues and prioritize them accordingly.”

By using collective learning to understand these issues, Joseph Mayo, president, JW Mayo Consulting, said companies can improve their safety and manufacturing processes.

“Companies need to work collaboratively as an industry to understand this new technology and the problems associated with it.” — Joseph Mayo, president, JW Mayo Consulting

“Companies need to work collaboratively as an industry to understand this new technology and the problems associated with it,” Mayo said. “They can also use detective controls to anticipate these issues and react accordingly by ensuring they have the appropriate controls and coverage in place to deal with them.”

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Manufacturing risks today extend beyond traditional coverage, like workers’ compensation, property, equipment breakdown, automobile, general liability and business interruption, to new risks, such as cyber liability.

It’s key to use a specialized broker and carrier with extensive knowledge and experience of the industry’s unique risks.

Stacie Graham, senior vice president and general manager, Liberty Mutual’s national insurance central division, said there are five key steps companies need to take to protect themselves and their employees against these risks. They include teaching them how to use the equipment properly, maintaining the same high quality of product and having a back-up location, as well as having the right contractual insurance policy language in place and plugging any potential coverage gaps.

“Risk managers need to work closely with their broker and carrier to make sure that they have the right contractual controls in place,” she said. “Secondly, they need to carry out on-site visits to make sure that they have the right safety practices and to identify the potential claims that they need to mitigate against.” &

Alex Wright is a U.K.-based business journalist, who previously was deputy business editor at The Royal Gazette in Bermuda. You can reach him at [email protected]