Tag: Benefits

Workers’ Comp: “Failure to Answer” Results in Forfeiture of Benefits

A worker’s benefits may be forfeited if the employee is untruthful on a medical questionnaire (if the misrepresentations directly relate to the alleged injury) or prejudices the employer’s ability to recovery from the “Louisiana Second Injury Fund.” La. R.S. 23:1208.1 Some Louisiana courts have shown reluctance to deny workers’ compensation benefits based on the employee’s alleged failure to truthfully answer a medical history questionnaire. However, the court in Spillman v. Career Adventures, Inc., — So.3d —- 2021 (La. App. 2d Cir. 8/11/21), 2021 WL 3523959, held that benefits were forfeited because the claimant provided false responses to several medical history questions and failed to answer a number of specific questions on a post-hire medical history questionnaire provided by his employer.

At trial, it was established that Spillman had pre-incident medical conditions to include:  1) injuries related to a 2007 work-related accident; 2) regional sympathetic dystrophy of the left foot; 3) COPD; 4) chronic pain from a gunshot wound in his left leg; 5) surgery to the AC joint of his right shoulder; 6) injuries from a 2018 motor vehicle accident to the right shoulder and right knee; 7) anxiety; 8) bipolar disorder; and 9) many other ailments.

Like many other employers, Spillman’s employer Career Adventures included with its employment packet a “Office of Workers’ Compensation Second Injury Board Questionnaire.”  Spillman failed to truthfully complete this questionnaire and checked “no” to specific questions which asked if he had experienced many of his known conditions such as COPD and bipolar disorder. Although Spillman took the time to respond to numerous “fill in the blank” questions, he purposefully skipped at least 10 inquiries.

Eleven months after hire, Spillman alleged he was injured at work while performing his duties as a welder.  At trial, Spillman’s family physician identified a torn tendon in the left elbow as a work-related injury. He further  testified that the tendon injury limited his activities and merged with his pre-existing injuries to create a greater total disability. The workers’ compensation judge (“WCJ”) ruled that Spillman violated La. 23:1208.1 by failing to truthfully answer certain questions. The Second Circuit “went further” in affirming the workers’ compensation judge, stating:

“We go further than the WCJ. All information which would have been disclosed had Mr. Spillman truthfully answered each and every question on the preemployment questionnaire must be considered …”

Therefore, the appellate court in Spillman found that both false answers and a failure to answer certain questions can qualify as a willful misrepresentation sufficient to cause a forfeiture of benefits under La. R.S. 23:1208.1 under certain circumstances.  

Coronavirus and Workers Compensation in Louisiana

In Louisiana, workers compensation benefits can be owed if an employee sustains an accident or develops an occupational disease arising out of and occurring during the course and scope of their employment.  The definitions and burdens of proof differ for each.

An accident is defined by La. R.S. 23:1021 as:

(1) “Accident” means an unexpected or unforeseen actual, identifiable, precipitous event happening suddenly or violently, with or without human fault, and directly producing at the time objective findings of an injury which is more than simply a gradual deterioration or progressive degeneration.

An occupational disease is defined by La. R.S. 23:1031.1 as:

B. An occupational disease means only that disease or illness which is due to causes and conditions characteristic of and peculiar to the particular trade, occupation, process, or employment in which the employee is exposed to such disease. Occupational disease shall include injuries due to work-related carpal tunnel syndrome. Degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, arthritis of any type, mental illness, and heart-related or perivascular disease are specifically excluded from the classification of an occupational disease for the purpose of this Section.

C. Notwithstanding the limitations of Subsection B hereof, every laboratory technician who is disabled because of the contraction of any disease, diseased condition, or poisoning which disease, diseased condition, or poisoning is a result, whether directly or indirectly, of the nature of the work performed, or the dependent of a laboratory technician whose death is the result of a disease, diseased condition, or poisoning, whether directly or indirectly, of the nature of the work performed shall be entitled to the compensation provided in this Chapter the same as if said laboratory technician received personal injury by accident arising out of and in the course of his employment.

As used herein, the phrase “laboratory technician” shall mean any person who, because of his skills in the technical details of his work, is employed in a place devoted to experimental study in any branch of the natural or applied sciences; to the application of scientific principles of examination, testing, or analysis by instruments, apparatus, chemical or biological reactions or other scientific processes for the purposes of the natural or applied sciences; to the preparation, usually on a small scale, of drugs, chemicals, explosives, or other products or substances for experimental or analytical purposes; or in any other similar place of employment.

Except as otherwise provided in this Subsection, any disability or death claim arising under the provisions of this Subsection shall be handled in the same manner and considered the same as disability or death claims arising due to occupational diseases.

In general, if an employee can prove that they were exposed to Coronavirus at work, and that the particular exposure caused them to contract Coronavirus disease, they may be able to prove a compensable accident.  The burden of proof is a tough one, of course, because it would seem to be nearly impossible for an employee who contracts the Coronavirus to prove the contraction resulted from work as opposed to exposure in some other environment.  However, it is important to note that one Louisiana court did find that a claimant was able to meet that burden when he contracted the West Nile Virus by proving to the satisfaction of the Workers Compensation Judge, rather incredibly, that a particular mosquito bite occurring at work was the cause.  Allen v. Graphic Packaging,   51,080 (La. App. 2nd Cir. 1/11/17), 211 So.3d 1219.   If a claimant is able to prove the occurrence of an accident, then the usual workers compensation medical and indemnity benefits would be payable depending on medical needs, disability status, or even death benefits if the employee expired as the result of such an accident.

For an employee to be able to prove that their contraction of Coronavirus disease fits within the definition of an occupational disease, they would have to prove that it was “due to causes and conditions characteristic of and peculiar to” their employment.  Some healthcare workers and others in related fields who become infected would seem to have an easier time proving their cases than others whose work would not customarily lead to such exposures.  The definition above includes laboratory technicians (which could be an expansive list as defined) who contract a disease as the result exposure to something that they are working on/with.  The statute also provides some timing elements for claim filing and causation presumption, most of which would not seem to apply because of novel nature of the current Coronavirus outbreak.  As with claims asserted as accidents, the usual medical and indemnity benefits would be payable depending on the circumstances of the individual worker.

For additional details on the Allen case, please review Keogh Cox blog “One Particular Mosquito: West Nile Virus Found to be a Compensable Workers’ Compensation Claim” by clicking here:  https://keoghcox.com/one-particular-mosquito-west-nile-virus-found-compensable-workers-compensation-claim/.