Workers’ Compensation Won’t Cover E-Cigarette Use, Court Rules
Larry Brooks supervised a team that preformed water and sewer line repairs for the City of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
As per state labor laws, Brooks and his team were allotted two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch break when working an eight-hour day. As part of his duties, Brooks was “responsible for deciding whether and when breaks would be taken, and [was] responsible for the crew during breaks.”
One sunny October afternoon, Brooks and his team took lunch at a nearby gas station. Towards the end of their break, the team and Brooks entered the gas station to purchase cigarettes.
Brooks, changing things up, opted for an e-cigarette. He ignited the device while sitting in his truck and immediately began coughing. He opened the truck door to step out and get some fresh air, however his coughing episode caused him to pass out. Brooks landed on the cement curb, injuring his hip, back and head.
The injuries prevented Brooks from returning to work as a team supervisor, though he was cleared for light duty work. He filed for workers’ compensation, but the claim was denied.
During a hearing before the city’s deputy commissioner, Brooks testified his injuries were related to an accident stemming from work-related duties. He was, at the time of incident, responsible for the crew during their break.
The city saw it differently, and the deputy commissioner said “[Brooks’] injuries were not the result of an injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment,” calling it an idiopathic reaction.
Idiopathic conditions can pop up at any time, as a reaction to outside forces or as a hidden ailment. If at work, best practice is to keep detailed incident reports on file in case a workers’ comp dispute arises.
In the Court of Appeals, Brooks argued the city mistakenly denied his claim, because it failed to conclude his injuries stemmed from a fall related to his employment. He argued that because he was on the clock, despite it being his breaktime, his accident and subsequent injuries stemmed from his employment.
The court looked at Brooks’ medical records, confirming his reaction to the e-cigarette was an idiopathic condition — a condition that arises spontaneously without a known cause.
While the Workers’ Compensation Act covers certain idiopathic maladies, it will only cover those that can be proven to stem from employment-related practices.
Brooks’ fall stemmed from an idiopathic reaction to the substances found in his e-cigarette, not from work-related activity, the court said.
Scorecard: Larry Brooks will not receive workers’ compensation for an injury that stemmed from e-cigarette use.
Takeaway: Idiopathic conditions can pop up at any time, as a reaction to outside forces or as a hidden ailment. If at work, best practice is to keep detailed incident reports on file in case a workers’ comp dispute arises. &