You Be the Judge: Is a Teacher’s Diabetic Incident Subject to Exclusive Remedy?

While at work, a teacher suffered a hypoglycemic event and received workers' comp. Later she sought damages. Does exclusive remedy apply?
By: | August 6, 2019

A teacher in a New Jersey district with diabetes requested a schedule change that would have allowed her to eat lunch at an earlier time in order to manage her blood sugar levels. The district required her to supervise students during their lunch and scheduled her for a later lunch time. When she approached the principal about the earlier time, he responded that he would “look into it.”

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When the teacher reminded the principal about her need for an earlier lunch break, he verbally told her that she could take a break whenever she wasn’t feeling well, and the vice principal told her to skip cafeteria duty. Believing that these verbal representations weren’t official without confirmation in writing, the teacher adhered to her assigned schedule.

The teacher had a hypoglycemic event in front of her students during which she had a seizure and became unconscious, which caused her to strike her head and face on a table and the floor, resulting in extensive bleeding. As a result, she experienced a total loss of smell, extraction of a tooth and vertigo, among other injuries.

The teacher filed a workers’ compensation claim, and the district paid benefits.

The teacher also sued under state law analogous to the ADA. The district countered that it shouldn’t be required to pay damages on the claim because the workers’ comp law provided the exclusive remedy.

Did the teacher’s injuries fall under the exclusive remedy bar?

    • A. Yes. The teacher was compensated for her injuries, so the exclusive remedy provision would prevent her from double recovery.
  • B. Yes. Because the teacher didn’t heed the instructions to take a break when she wasn’t feeling well and to skip cafeteria duty, her injuries were a “simple fact of industrial life.”
  • C. No. The principal intentionally refused her accommodation request, and it was substantially certain that she could suffer a hypoglycemic event that could cause bodily injuries.

How the court ruled:

A is incorrect. The court reasoned the principal intentionally refused the teacher’s accommodation request, knowing that she had potential diabetes-related issues arising from blood sugar levels. This could lead a jury to conclude that the district acted with knowledge that it was substantially certain that the teacher would experience an injury.

B is incorrect. A hypoglycemic event that could cause bodily injuries wasn’t a “simple fact of industrial life,” according to the court. The court explained that there was no language in the state law analogous to the ADA mandating that claims made by employees against employers may only be brought under workers’ compensation law.

Additionally, given that the ADA-analogous law was “remedial social legislation,” the court expressed that it should be “liberally construed ‘in combination with other protections available under’ ” state law.

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C is correct. In Richter v. Oakland Board of Education, No. A-0102-17T2 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 06/11/19), the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division held that the teacher’s claim was not barred by the exclusive remedy provision.

The court explained that the law provides an “intentional wrong” exception under which the exclusive remedy bar doesn’t apply if: 1) the employer knew that its actions were substantially certain to result in injury to the employee; and 2) the resulting injury and the circumstances of its infliction on the worker were more than a fact of life of industrial employment. In this case, the court said, “it was substantially certain that [the teacher] could suffer a hypoglycemic event that could cause bodily injuries.”

Editor’s note: This feature is not intended as instructional material or to replace legal advice. &

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]

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