Category: Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ Compensation: A Recent Louisiana Decision Revisits a Fundamental Issue

Historians call it “The Grand Bargain.” At its heart, the workers’ compensation law is a bargain, an exchange between the employer and the employee. In this bargain, the employee without having to prove his employer’s negligence receives the benefit of continued income and medical treatment. In return, the employer, even if it is at fault, receives protection from tort suits. However, for this bargain to apply, the accident must have occurred within the “course and scope” of employment. But the question of when an accident is considered to have occurred in the “course and scope” is not always as simple to answer as it might otherwise appear.

The issue of course and scope has been litigated many times, in many forums. The recent decision in Jackie Holden v. Mike’s Catfish Inn, Inc. and Massachusetts Bay Insurance Company, 2017 CA 1056 (La. App. 1 Cir. 2/27/18) explores course and scope in the context of an employee who was on break.

In Holden, the plaintiff was “clocked in” and on the premises of her employer. When her daughter called and asked to meet her outside, the plaintiff took an employer-sanctioned work break, walked outside, and fell on the steps, causing injury to her left knee. She filed a tort suit against her employer alleging negligence for failing to remove a foreign substance which allegedly caused her to fall. The employer sought to dismiss the suit under the contention that the plaintiff’s exclusive remedy for the fall was workers’ compensation.

The trial court dismissed the suit as barred by the employer’s workers’ compensation protections and plaintiff appealed. The sole issue before the appellate court was whether the plaintiff was in the course and scope. Plaintiff argued that she was on break and had left her designated work duties to speak with her daughter such that her activities at the time of the fall were not work-related. The employer countered that plaintiff remained on the clock during her break and was on the employer’s premises when she fell.

In assessing course and scope, courts consider the time of the accident, the place where the accident occurred, and the employee’s activities at the time of the accident. “An accident occurs in the course and scope of employment when the employee sustains an injury while actively engaged in the performance of her duties during work hours, either on the employer’s premises or at other places where employment activities take the employee.” Holden at p. 6, citing, McLin v. Industrial Specialty Contractors, Inc., 02-1539 (La. 7/2/03), 851 So. 2d 1135.

In ruling against the plaintiff, the Holden court colorfully concluded:

“An employee who is getting paid, is on her employer’s premises, and is on an approved work break is in the course and scope of her employment whether she is visiting her daughter, getting a breath of fresh air, smoking a cigarette, or walking outside to drink a diet coke.”

While workers’ compensation is a bargain, Holden reminds that it is a bargain workers will continue to try to escape.

 

Virginia “Jenny” McLin is a partner at Keogh Cox who practices in the fields of corporate litigation, insurance defense, and workers’ compensation defense. When she is not practicing law, Jenny can be found volunteering with the Junior League of Baton Rouge; cheering for the LSU Tigers with her husband, Ryan; or shuffling her two kids to and from dance practice.

One Particular Mosquito: West Nile Virus Found to be a Compensable Workers’ Compensation Claim

A Workers’ Compensation Judge in Monroe, Louisiana found that a claimant met his burden of proving that a specific mosquito bite at work caused him to contract the West Nile Virus, resulting in permanent total disability.

At trial, the claimant asserted that “he specifically remembers being bitten on his left leg by a mosquito” while working in the break room of his employer, Graphic Packaging. Claimant presented evidence that mosquitoes were present at the work site, although his purported eyewitness to the event (who also contracted the disease) was proven to have not been at work that day.

The director of the Ouachita Parish Mosquito Abatement District was offered by the claimant and testified that there was a prevalence of mosquitoes in Ouachita Parish during that summer which carried the West Nile Virus. Mosquitoes trapped near both the employer’s location and the claimant’s house tested positive. According to the director, the only way to determine if a mosquito is infected with West Nile is to have that particular mosquito tested. An expert epidemiologist for the employer added that the most commonly infected mosquitoes would not have been active during the middle of the day when the claimant alleges he was bitten.

Based upon the testimony of the claimant, his witness, and the experts, the Workers’ Compensation Judge ruled that the claimant had sufficiently proven that the specific mosquito infected with the West Nile Virus had bitten him at work. The court also stung the employer and its workers’ compensation insurer with penalties and attorneys’ fees, finding that they had not contested the claim on a reasonable basis.

The Court of Appeal in Allen vs. Graphic Packaging, No. 51,080 (La. App. 2d Cir. 1/11/17), – – So 3d – -, upheld the Workers’ Compensation Judge. The court noted that all proof of the “accident” rested upon circumstantial evidence and that the claimant possessed no direct evidence that the break room mosquito carried the disease. In this setting, the claimant “faced a burden of proof to show circumstantially that the break room mosquito carried the disease.” Utilizing the “manifest error or clearly wrong standard,” the appellate court held that the claimant had met his burden despite his indirect proof.

The Allen court ultimately reversed the finding of permanent total disability, because the Workers’ Compensation Judge misapplied the statutory requirements. It also reversed the award of penalties and attorneys’ fees noting that “there were numerous factors sufficient to validate Graphic’s reasonable controversion of Allen’s claim.”

Misrepresentations Lead to Dismissal of Suit

In a case handled by Keogh Cox lawyers Steve Whitlow and Jenny McLin, a Louisiana court of appeal has affirmed the ruling of a Workers Compensation Judge holding that an employee who made misrepresentations about his claim forfeited his right to workers compensation benefits. Arguello v. Brand Energy, 13-CA-990 (La. App. 5th Cir. 5/21/14), ___ So. 3rd ___.

In ruling for the employer, the trial court found that the claimant had committed three separate violations of La.R.S. 23:1208. The claimant was also assessed with a $500 civil penalty payable to the Kids Chance Scholarship Program.

Volunteer Firemen “On the Hook” in Louisiana

The Louisiana Supreme Court recently held that the workers’ compensation tort immunity provided by LSA-R.S. 23:1032 does not apply to suits by one volunteer fireman against another volunteer. See Champagne v. American Alternative Insurance Corp., 12-1697 (La. 3/19/13), — So.3d —. LSA-R.S. 23:1036 provides that workers’ compensation is the sole and exclusive remedy provided to a volunteer fireman against a fire company. Champagne clarified that this immunity does not similarly apply to claims for personal injury brought by one volunteer fireman against another.