The Cross Contamination between Workers’ Compensation and OSHA: Considerations for Handling Blood-Borne Pathogen Claims in Colorado and Arizona.

Exposure to blood-borne pathogens presents unique risks in the work place. Workers in health care or in-resident home care are, on a daily basis, subject to the potential of disease transmitted by bodily fluids. These diseases range from methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), spinal meningitis, tuberculosis, hepatitis, to HIV. Given the Sharps Containerubiquitous daily potential for exposures to workers across the board, including direct patient care workers to maintenance workers to transport personnel, risk managers and adjusters need to understand the overlap with workers compensation and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (“OSHA”) rules. Understanding exposure and needlestick law is critical to containing risks as well as protecting employees from life-altering danger. [1]

 

The OSHA rules pertaining to disease transmitted though bodily fluids are found on the public domain at: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/bloodbornepathogens/gen_guidance.html. The federal regulations governing OSHA’s rules and role is found at 29 CFR 1910.1030. OSHA laws, since 2002, also conform to the federal Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act (NSPA) of 2000.[2] Congress in large part delegated the enforcement of the NSPA to OSHA. In turn, OSHA rules require employers evaluate controlled safety programs to keep employees safe from potential exposures and to implement engineering controls to effectuate any respective safety plan. The NSPA requires that “Requires certain employers to: (1) review and update exposure control plans to reflect changes in technology that eliminate or reduce such exposure, and document their consideration and implementation of appropriate commercially available and effective safer medical devices for such purpose; (2) maintain a sharps injury log, noting the type and brand of device used, where the injury occurred, and an explanation of the incident (exempting employers who are not required to maintain specified OSHA logs); and (3) seek input on such engineering and work practice controls from the affected health care workers (exempting employers who are not required to establish exposure control plans).”[3]  The federal NSPA and OSHA law do not alter the scope of workers compensation liability insurance coverage or impose additional coverage requirements upon employers. However, OSHA regulations do require the employer of an exposed employee set up an immediate confidential medical evaluation. Under OSHA standards, the evaluation: “This evaluation and follow-up must be: made available at no cost to the worker and at a reasonable time and place; performed by or under the supervision of a licensed physician or other licensed healthcare professional; and provided according to the recommendations of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) current at the time the procedures take place. In addition, laboratory tests must be conducted by an accredited laboratory and also must be at no cost to the worker. A worker who participates in post-exposure evaluation and follow-up may consent to have his or her blood drawn for determination of a baseline infection status but has the option to withhold consent for HIV testing at that time. In this instance, the employer must ensure that the worker’s blood sample is preserved for at least 90 days in case the worker changes his or her mind about HIV testing.”[4] The employee has recourse under OSHA regardless of state workers compensation laws and coverage to have the employer pay for lab tests and blood analysis to determine the presence of blood-borne illnesses.

 

One interesting aspect of the OSHA regulations deals with the employer-employment relationship of a physician using a health care facility under a contract for staff privileges.  Surgeons, for example, may have staff privileges at a hospital to perform surgeries they otherwise could not do in their office. According to OSHA’s interpretation of its own rules, “Under OSHA’s blood-borne pathogens compliance directive (OSHA Instruction CPL 02-02-069 [formerly CPL 2-2.69]) the status of the physician as an employer or employee is important to establish in order to determine the application of OSHA standards. According to the paragraph XI.D. in the directive, physicians “… may be cited if they create or control blood-borne pathogens hazards that expose employees at hospitals or other sites where they have staff privileges in accordance with the multi-employer worksite guidelines of CPL 02-00-124 [formerly CPL 2-0.124], Multi-Employer Citation Policy.”[5] In terms of needlestick or exposure cases in both Colorado and Arizona, an employer/carrier should always assess the corresponding contracts (or independent contractor status) to determine whether a what (or whose) particular workers compensation insurance policy applies in these situations.

 

Arizona has passed specific legislation pertaining to exposure risks. Section 23-1043.04, A.R.S., specifically deals with MRSA, spinal meningitis, and tuberculous exposures. Mere exposure to a needlestick is not an automatic claim for compensation. The workers must first file a claim with the ICA. The statute then requires, to sustain a claim: (1) The employee’s regular course of employment involves handling of or exposure to methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, spinal meningitis or tuberculosis; (2) Within thirty calendar days after a possible significant exposure that arises out of and in the course of employment, the employee reports in writing to the employer the details of the exposure. The employer shall notify its insurance carrier or claims processor of the report. Failure of the employer to notify the insurance carrier is not a defense to a claim by the employee; (3) For a claim involving methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, the employee must be diagnosed with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus within fifteen days after the employee reports pursuant to paragraph 2 of this subsection. (4) For a claim involving spinal meningitis, the employee is diagnosed with spinal meningitis within two to eighteen days of the possible significant exposure; (5) For a claim involving tuberculosis, the employee is diagnosed with tuberculosis within twelve weeks of the possible significant exposure.

 

What is also of interest for employers is that the respective Arizona statue contains protects the medical information of third parties. In the course of an exposure case, an employer may allege that a sexual partner or perhaps drug use caused the alleged condition. Under A.R.S. 23-1043.04(D) “a person alleged to be a source of a significant exposure shall not be compelled by subpoena or other court order to release confidential information relating to methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, spinal meningitis or tuberculosis either by document or by oral testimony. Evidence of the alleged source’s methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, spinal meningitis or tuberculosis status may be introduced by either party if the alleged source knowingly and willingly consents to the release of that information.” Proving an alternative source of the exposure may be challenging without court intervention.

 

The statutory provisions pertaining to HIV is found in section 23-1043.2, and the provisions pertaining to Hepatitis C is found in 23-1043.3. Each respective section has reporting requirements similar to 23-1043.3, and contain the same provision barring compelled blood tests of third parties. Additionally, an employee may file a notice with the Industrial Commission reporting a significant exposure to blood-borne illness.[6] The worker must also file a separate claim, for which the employer/carrier may then respond by operation of a Notice of Claim Status.

 

Colorado does not have specific statutory provisions concerning blood-borne illness exposures. The Colorado exposure analysis is traditionally done in the general rubric of whether an event caused an injury in the course of employment, and that the injury arose out of employment.[7] It is the claimant’s legal burden to prove a causal nexus with work.[8] In other words, whether a needlestick caused an injury requiring medical treatment to cure or relieve the effects of the respective industrial injury. If you have a needle stick or blood-borne illness exposure issue, please contact us for help with specific guidance on these complex issues.

 

[1] For example, see the story of one health care worker exposed to a needle stick. https://www.nursingworld.org/practice-policy/work-environment/health-safety/safe-needles/safe-needles-law/

[2] https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-106publ430/html/PLAW-106publ430.htm

[3] https://www.congress.gov/bill/106th-congress/house-bill/5178

[4] https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_BloodborneFacts/bbfact04.pdf

[5] https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2003-02-20

[6] https://www.azica.gov/claims-significant-work-exposure

[7] C.R.S. section 8-41-301

[8] See. e.g., Manzanares v. Quality Uniform Linen Supply & Liberty Mutual WC #4-268-197 (ICAO 1999)

Injuries Sustained Coming and Going From Work – When Are They Compensable?

We typically think of compensable injuries occurring when the employee is already at their place of employment.  But what about the time employees spend on the road, coming from and going to work?  Many industries require employees to drive as part of their daily duties, not to mention the time workers in various professions spend commuting to and from the job site.

 

In 2017 alone, there were 648 fatalities in Colorado resulting from motor vehicle accidents.  https://www.codot.gov/library/traffic/safety-crash-data/fatal-crash-data-city-county In the same year, there were close to 3,500 injury-only accidents.   https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/csp/traffic-safety-statistics.   Generally, injuries sustained while travelling to and from work are not considered to have arisen out of, and in the course and scope of, the employment relationship.  However, special circumstances may exist which establish a causal relationship between the employment and the travel to and from the worksite.  In the sentinel case of Madden v. Mountain West Fabricators, 977 P.2d 861 (Colo. 1999), the Supreme Court reiterated the longstanding rule that injuries sustained going to work from home, and while returning, are not compensable because they are not seen as arising out of employment.  The Madden opinion however, also acknowledged the facts of any particular case may justify an exception to this general rule.  The decision sets forth four categories of “variables” to consider in determining compensability of travel-related accidents.  The Madden court indicated that the variables include, but are not limited to; (1) whether the travel occurred during working hours, (2) whether the travel occurred on or off the employer’s premises, (3) whether the travel was contemplated by the employment contract, and (4) whether the obligations or conditions of employment created a “zone of special danger” out of which the injury arose. The Madden court also recognized the question of whether the travel was contemplated by the employment contract has the “potential to encompass many situations.” Generally, these situations involve the following: (a) whether the particular journey was assigned or directed by the employer, (b) whether the travel was at the express or implied request of the employer and conferred a benefit beyond the employee’s arrival at work, and (c) whether the travel was singled out for special treatment as an inducement to employment. The common element in these types of cases is that the travel is a substantial part of the service to the employer. Finally, if the Claimant establishes only one of the four Madden “variables,” recovery depends upon whether the evidence supporting that variable demonstrates a causal connection between the employment and the injury, such that the travel to and from the work arises out of and in the course of employment.

 

Following the Supreme Court’s holding in Madden, the courts have applied the analysis with varying outcomes.  In Norman v. Law Offices of Frank Moya, W.C. No. 4-919-557 (April 23, 2014), the Claimant was employed as an attorney performing public defender duties for the employer pursuant to its contract with the City and County of Denver. The Claimant was required to use her automobile at work to travel from her office to the court house, to the jails, and to other miscellaneous locations. When the Claimant was injured in a traffic accident while she was driving to her first appointment of the day at the court house, the Industrial Claim Appeals Panel upheld the ALJ’s determination the Claimant’s travel was contemplated by the contract of hire and the Claimant’s injuries were compensable. The Claimant’s travel by automobile to the court house was deemed to confer a benefit upon the employer beyond the sole fact of the Claimant’s arrival at work. Therefore, “…the circumstances of the auto accident on that date fell within the exception to the going and coming rule specified in the Madden decision.”

 

However, in In the Matter of the Claim of: Holly Lagasse, Claimant, 4-993-361, 2018 WL 15445488 (March 29, 2018) (NSFOP), the Court of Appeals affirmed the ALJ’s denial of benefits based on the coming and going rule.  The Claimant in the case was the decedent’s wife. The decedent worked for the employer as a derrick hand on an oil rig. The decedent worked for 12.5 hours each day from December 11, 2013 through December 17, 2013. The decedent voluntarily worked extra shifts from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm on December 19, 21, and 23, 2013. On December 24, 2013, the decedent began working the 6:00 pm to 6:00 am shift. The Claimant slept for about six hours on Christmas day and left for work at approximately 4:30 pm on December 25, 2013, to begin his 6:00 pm shift. After the decedent completed his work shift the morning of December 26, 2013, he started driving home. At approximately 6:36 am, the decedent’s pickup truck drifted across the center line of the County Road 66 in Weld County and collided with a bread truck. At hearing, the Claimant contended that the decedent’s death occurred during the course and scope of employment. The Claimant asserted that the decedent’s accident was compensable because of two special circumstance exceptions to the general rule that injuries sustained while coming and going to work are not compensable. The Claimant argued that the decedent’s work created a “zone of danger” because his work schedule produced significant fatigue and caused him to fall asleep at the wheel.  Claimant further argued the decedent’s employment implicitly contemplated the use of a personal vehicle as the work location could change without notice because of a “rig move.” According to the Claimant, there was a benefit to the employer because if the employees did not bring their personal vehicles to work, the employer would have had to arrange and pay for transporting the employees to the new work site after a rig move. Finally, the Claimant argued that the employer benefitted from the employees transporting their uniforms and special apparel home for cleaning.

 

The ALJ rejected the Claimant’s argument regarding the “zone of danger exception.” The ALJ also determined that the travel was not contemplated by the employment contract. The ALJ found the employer did not require the decedent to use his vehicle to work; mainly the decedent’s vehicle was not used to perform job duties and did not confer a benefit to the Claimant beyond his mere arrival at work. The ALJ determined that the Claimant failed to show that special circumstances existed to justify an exception to the general going to and coming from work rule, concluded that the decedent’s accident was not compensable and denied the Claimant’s request for death benefits.

 

The “special circumstances” outlined by the Madden court sufficient to establish the required nexus between travel and a compensable work injury can present complicated factual and legal issues. Should you have any questions concerning accidents occurring while an employee is coming or going from work, please contact us.

#MeToo and EPLI Policies

In response to the #MeToo movement, companies have begun taking an increased role to prevent and police sexual harassment in the workplace. Protecting employees from any form of sexual misconduct or harassment should undoubtedly be the primary goal of these efforts. However, any proactive measures cannot guarantee that no incidents will occur, and companies’ future interests will be at risk.  Consequently, counsel and risk managers should look to employment practices liability insurance (EPLI) which can provide coverage and pay for the defense of such claims. EPLI policies provide coverage for many types of the claims employees make against their employers that are not covered by workers compensation policies, including sexual harassment.

 

What is an EPLI Policy?

EPLI policies are generally sold on a claims-made basis, which means claims made against your company during the policy period are covered. There are some wrinkles to consider, however, if one is buying such a policy for the first time, or perhaps changing carriers for better terms or coverage. Most claims-made EPLI policies have a retroactive date, which provides that claims made during the policy period based on acts that took place before the “retro date” are not covered. When buying coverage new, negotiate for the earliest retro date you can get, taking into consideration relevant statutes of limitation. When switching carriers, one option sometimes available is to purchase “tail coverage” under the expiring policy that extends it to cover claims in the future, as long as the underlying acts took place before the policy expired. This can allow the new policy to have a retro date simultaneous with the policy inception. Also, consider giving notice under the expiring policy for potential claims that have not yet been made. Some policies require this. Others permit it at the policyholder’s discretion. Be careful when answering any questions on a policy application regarding known or potential claims, as this can be a minefield.

 

Coverage Basics

EPLI policies usually cover claims for discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy), age, or disability, including related claims for harassment. Policies commonly exclude claims arising under workers’ compensation laws and policies, and claims under federal labor laws unrelated to discrimination or harassment, such as union-related laws, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, the Fair Labor and Standards Act, the Employment Retirement Income Security Act and COBRA. Policies are not uniform, so read them carefully. Moreover, even if a policy excludes one of the above types of claims, it might be possible to have it added by endorsement.

 

One issue is the extent to which many of the claims purportedly covered under EPLI policies are insurable. Based on public policy, states often place limits on the extent to which intentional acts may be insured, and claims of discrimination or harassment can often include allegations of knowing and intentional acts. Thus, a company should consider carefully when purchasing an EPLI policy which state’s law likely will apply and whether that state has spoken on the public policy.

 

Definition of a “Claim”

A policyholder usually will receive notice of an employment claim in one of four ways:

  • Oral complaint from an employee.
  • Written notice from a claimant.
  • Written notice from an agency such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
  • Receipt of a lawsuit.

Whether any or all of the above will trigger coverage under a particular policy will depend upon the policy’s “claim” definition. This definition can affect when notice is due, when defense costs are covered, and other secondary but important matters.

Ideally, the definition will include provisions that the demand can be for relief other than monetary damages, including “reinstatement, reemployment or re-engagement.” Such a change does more than effect a change in when coverage is triggered — it can create a much broader substantive coverage grant.

 

Defense Costs and Related Issues

EPLI policies commonly require the insurance company to pay the costs of defending claims. Disputes may arise over whether the insurance company is required to advance defense costs, or reimburse the policyholder after a claim is resolved. Another common issue concerns the allocation of defense costs among covered and uncovered claims. Whether the insurance company may pay only costs associated with covered claims may depend upon the wording of the policy as well as the applicable state law

 

Fraudulent or Malicious Acts Exclusions

Most EPLI policies contain an exclusion for deliberate and seriously wrongful acts. The following example states that the insurance company will not be liable for any claim:

arising out of, based upon, or attributable to the committing in fact of any criminal or deliberate fraudulent act.

This exclusion seeks to preclude coverage for fraudulent and criminal acts, and omits an important protection for policyholders. Because so many claims contain such allegations, it is now common for these exclusions to contain an exception that provides that the exclusion applies only “if a judgment or other final adjudication adverse to the Insured establishes such a deliberately fraudulent act or omission.” This clause ensures that a policyholder who faces allegations of fraud will have its defense costs paid, and will only lose coverage if the fraud is proved. Another important exception provides that the criminal or fraudulent act of one policyholder will not be imputed to other policyholders.

 

Conclusion

Although there are many hurdles and prerequisites to securing insurance coverage for sexual harassment, employment discrimination, and other employee claims, a company’s insurance policies are a critical source for financial support against such claims. Should your company be faced with a claim related to its employment practices, immediately notify, in writing, all insurance companies that may possibly provide coverage for that claim. Forward all relevant information regarding the claim to the insurance company. And if the insurance company denies the claim, do not take no for an answer.

 

Acts of Employees that Reduce Compensation

There are a few defenses often overlooked when investigating a workers’ compensation claim and deciding whether to admit liability.  Some of those defenses include safety rule violations, willful misleading of the Employer regarding the claimant’s physical abilities, and intoxication defenses.  These defenses should always be considered as part of a checklist when determining compensability and benefits owed to the claimant.  Each defense can reduce compensation to the claimant by up to 50% and can be taken immediately upon the filing of the initial filing the admission with the Division.  It is important to note the distinctions with each defense as they must be noted in the remarks section of the admission when filing with the Division.

 

Safety Rule Violations

 

Section 8-42-112(1), C.R.S. provides as follows; “The compensation provided for in articles 40 to 47 of this title shall be reduced fifty percent:

(a)  Where injury is caused by the willful failure of the employee to use safety devices provided by the employer;

(b)  Where injury results from the employee’s willful failure to obey any reasonable rule adopted by the employer   for the safety of the employee”

 

The key phrase to keep in mind with regard to safety rule violations and/or safety devices is the use of the word “willful.”  The word has been defined by the Supreme Court as “deliberate intent.”  The claimant must have known the rule communicated by the Employer and deliberately chose not to follow the Rule or use the safety device.  Negligence on the part of the claimant is not enough to allow safety rule violation.  However, intent can be inferred by the ALJ where the facts lead the trier of fact to consider that the claimant knew of the Rule and specifically chose not to follow it.  The burden of proof regarding safety rule violations is always on the Respondents to prove in court.  If successful, the safety rule violation is a 50% reduction that applies to all indemnity throughout the life of the claim.

 

Misleading the Employer regarding the claimant’s physical abilities

 

Section 8-42-112(1)(d), C.R.S. provides as follows; “Where the employee willfully misleads an employer concerning the employee’s physical ability to perform the job, and the employee is subsequently injured on the job as a result of the physical ability about which the employee willfully misled the employer. Notwithstanding any other provisions of articles 40 to 47 of this title, the provisions of this paragraph (d) shall apply in addition to any other penalty that may be imposed under section 8-43-402.”

 

Again, in order for the Employer to take a 50% reduction in benefits pursuant to this statute, the Employer must prove that the claimant willfully mislead the Employer regarding the claimant’s physical abilities to perform the job.  Should proof and documentation exist regarding the claimant’s intent to deceive the Employer, the ALJ can make the inference that the claimant’s actions were deliberate in order to obtain employment with the Employer or seek a position in which the claimant could not perform the job functions.

 

Intoxication defense

 

Given the current state of the law and the legalization of marijuana within Colorado, Respondents must always consider the intoxication defense when analyzing defenses in a claim.  Although marijuana is legal, the Employer still retains the right to prohibit the employee from using marijuana or other controlled substances in the workplace.  Section 8-42-112.5, C.R.S, indicates as follows,

(1) “Non-medical benefits otherwise payable to an injured worker are reduced fifty percent where the injury results from the presence in the worker’s system, during working hours, of controlled substances, as defined in section 18-18-102 (5), C.R.S., that are not medically prescribed or of a blood alcohol level at or above 0.10 percent, or at or above an applicable lower level as set forth by federal statute or regulation, as evidenced by a forensic drug or alcohol test conducted by a medical facility or laboratory licensed or certified to conduct such tests. A duplicate sample from any test conducted must be preserved and made available to the worker for purposes of a second test to be conducted at the worker’s expense. If the test indicates the presence of such substances or of alcohol at such level, it is presumed that the employee was intoxicated and that the injury was due to the intoxication. This presumption may be overcome by clear and convincing evidence.

(2)  As used in this section, “non-medical benefits” means all benefits provided for in articles 40 to 47 of this title other than disbursements for medical, surgical, nursing, and hospital services, apparatus, and supplies”

 

The key aspects of the statute to remember are “during working hours” and “clear and convincing evidence.”  These two aspects of the statute may prove problematic for both the claimant and Respondents in court.  First, it is Respondents’ burden to demonstrate that the claimant was intoxicated during working hours.  Most commonly, drug testing aids the Employer in confirming this first aspect of the statute.  Whether it is alcohol, marijuana, or otherwise, the drug test administered shortly after the alleged injury can help aid the Employer in determining the level of intoxication that is present.  Next comes the shifting burden to the claimant to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that he/she was not intoxicated at the time of the incident.  This is the highest burden to prove in workers’ compensation claims and usually comes with little success on the claimant’s part at hearing.  Similar to the other acts reducing compensation, up to 50% can be taken against indemnity benefits for the life of the claim.

 

Keeping these defenses in mind will help reduce exposure for Respondents in an effective way.  Should the defenses be challenged, it is important to remember that each one involves specific findings of fact that must be made by an ALJ at hearing.  Should you have any questions regarding each of the defenses, please contact us for guidance prior to filing the initial admission on the claim.

 

Injuries Resulting from Workplace Violence — When Are They Compensable?

We have all heard the grim news; a school in Parkland, a concert in Las Vegas, a nightclub in Orlando, a church in Charleston, a movie theater in Aurora.  The scenes have become far too common.  While we may think of the scenes of these places as serving a specific function, such as education, the location of each of these atrocities was also a workplace, making these acts a form of workplace violence.

 

While large-scale violent attacks grab the headlines, a Bureau of Justice Statistics Study found that 80 percent of workplace violence is non-life-threatening, verbal or physical assault.  http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/wv09pr.cfm.   The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines “workplace violence” broadly, as “violence or the threat of violence against workers”.  It can occur at, or outside, the workplace and can range from verbal threats and abuse to physical assault and homicide. However it manifests, workplace violence is a growing concern for employers and employees alike.  OSHA estimates some 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year.  https://www.osha.gov/OSHDoc/data_General_Facts-workplace-violence.pdf.  Co-worker altercations, domestic situations brought to the workplace, and customer retaliation are all situations falling under OSHA’s broad definition of workplace violence. All could lead to compensable workers’ compensation claims, significant injuries, including death, and the associated financial loss.   But not all incidents of workplace violence causing injury result in a compensable claim.

 

Under Colorado’s Workers’ Compensation Act, an injury must arise out of, and in the course and scope of, employment to be compensable.  An injury occurs “in the course of” employment when it takes place within the time and place limits of the employment relationship and during an activity connected to the employee’s job-related functions.  An injury “arises out of employment” when it has its origin in an employee’s work-related functions and is sufficiently related to those functions to be part of the employee’s employment contract.

 

The Colorado Supreme Court has determined injuries which result from workplace violence are divided into three categories of causation, some of which are compensable, some not. The first category is assaults that have an inherent connection to the employment because of “enforced contacts” which result from the duties of the job. This includes assaults originating in arguments over work performance, work equipment, delivery of a paycheck or termination from work.

 

The second category is assaults which result from a “neutral force”.  A “neutral force” is one that is neither particular to the claimant nor the employment. This type of assault has been analyzed under the “positional risk” or “but for” test and is applied to injuries which result from stray bullets, roving lunatics, drunks, assaults by mistake and completely unexplained attacks.

 

The third category is assaults which are the result of a private dispute which the parties import to the work place. (E.g., Claimants shot by a co-worker who believed that the claimants had made obscene calls to the co-worker’s spouse). This category has been expanded to include assaults where the victim was specifically chosen or targeted.

 

Injuries from workplace violence resulting from “enforced contacts”, specifically resulting from the claimant’s job duties are compensable. However, the issue of whether the assault resulted from the “duties of the job” requires a factual determination you may want to present to an Administrative Law Judge.  Assault injuries from a “neutral force”, such as a completely unexplained shooting, are also compensable. In such situations, the Courts consider whether, “but for” the conditions and obligations of employment, the claimant would have been injured.

 

In contrast, injuries caused by a work place assault which results from a private or personal dispute imported to the workplace are not compensable. Thus, where the assault has no inherent connection to employment activities, compensability of the claimant’s injuries depends on whether the claimant was specifically targeted for the assault.

 

When evaluating the compensability of workplace violence claims, the employer should also be mindful of the exclusivity provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act.  An employer that has complied with the Act is granted immunity from common-law actions for damages, such as pain and suffering, mental distress, loss of enjoyment of life, lost earning capacity, etc., and its employees are limited to the remedies specified in the Act.  If an employee’s injuries result from an assault that is inherently connected to the employment or is attributable to neutral sources that are not personal to the victim or perpetrator, those injuries arise out of the employment for the purposes of workers’ compensation and the employee is barred from bringing a tort claim against his or her employer. However, employee claims are not barred by the Workers’ Compensation exclusivity provisions if the assault originates in matters personal to one or both parties.

 

Have questions? Please contact us!

 

DIMEs ARE NOT WORTH A DIME and/or ICAO’S DESCENT (VIA DISSENT) INTO MADNESS

BACKGROUND

On February 26, 2018 Industrial Claim Appeals Office (ICAO) issued an opinion captioned Yeutter v. CBW Automation, Inc. Dimes not worth a Dimeand Pinnacol Assurance, W.C. No. 4-895-940. The decision sparked great interest in the workers’ compensation community and was a primary topic of discussion at the recent Spring Update CLE as well as the latest Case Law Update. The decision raises questions over how causation over different components of an injury can/should be litigated during the progression of a claim.

 

FACTS

Claimant worked as an engineer performing robotic programming tasks. He was hurt on August 24, 2012 when he was struck in the face by a carbon fiber pole. His injuries included a skull fracture, nerve damage, a broken arm, broken orbital skull sockets and a torn rotator cuff. In November 2013 Claimant began complaining to his treaters that he was experiencing fatigue and sleep disturbance. Claimant underwent a sleep study showing that he had narcolepsy. Claimant was prescribed Adderall, which he began taking in larger and larger doses to stay employed. Claimant had to reduce his Adderall use, but was unable to perform his job and ultimately stopped working in February 2015.
Claimant was placed at MMI effective August 26, 2015. Claimant was diagnosed as suffering from a traumatic brain injury that induced narcolepsy. Claimant received 67% whole person rating. Respondents requested a DIME. The DIME deferred to the treating doctor over whether Claimant’s injuries included post-traumatic narcolepsy and gave Claimant a 39% whole person rating. Respondents filed a FAL on March 2, 2016 based on the DIME.

 

Claimant claimed permanent total disability (PTD). The employer’s long-term disability program generated expert reports that concluded Claimant was not so disabled from his injury as to be unable to work. Respondents also obtained evaluations from various experts that concluded Claimant’s condition should not keep him from work. These evaluations included a neuropsychological evaluation the concluded it was not possible to state that the traumatic brain injury caused narcolepsy. The ALJ ultimately determined that medical evidence was too speculative for a causal connection to be established between Claimant’s injury and the narcolepsy.

 

RULING

The ALJ found that, even assuming Claimant’s employability was limited by narcolepsy, he remained employable. The ALJ determined that Claimant failed to prove entitlement to maintenance medical benefits, citing to an IME doctor’s opinion the Claimant’s need for narcolepsy medication was not related to the injury.

 

HOLDING

Claimant appealed arguing, in part, that the DIME’s findings were binding on the parties. The ICAO affirmed the ALJ, basically citing to the ALJ’s ability to resolve evidence and upholding an ALJs factual findings, so long as they are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Addressing Claimant’s argument over the binding effect of the DIME opinion regarding causation of the narcolepsy, the ICAO cited to the clear and convincing evidence burden given to the DIME over MMI and impairment, but that the DIME’s opinions on other issues are just another medical opinion. About half of the majority ICAO’s opinion is directed at arguments raised in a dissent.

 

THE DISSENT

The dissent disagrees with the decision in that it allows the ALJ to conclude Claimant’s narcolepsy is not a part of the original injury. The dissent disagrees with this because it allows the Respondents to simultaneously stipulate that the narcolepsy was part of the work injury for permanent disability purposes while contending that it is not part of the work injury for maintenance medical benefits and PTD benefits. The dissent relies heavily on Leprino Foods, Co. v. Industrial Claim Appeals Office, 134 P.3d 475 (Colo. App. 2005). In that case, Claimant had an elbow injury with a possible shoulder component. A DIME took place and found Claimant was not at MMI due to the shoulder. Respondents did not challenge the DIME and it was determined that Claimant’s entitlement to TTD received a clear and convincing evidence burden based on the DIME’s determination Claimant was not at MMI due to his shoulder. The dissent basically takes the position that it is unfair for Respondents to accept Claimant’s narcolepsy as a source of impairment producing an admission of liability in accordance with the DIME, but allow Respondents to challenge this condition as not work-related in a PTD and maintenance medical hearing.

 

IMPLICATIONS

Use of Yeutter: The Yeutter case is likely being appealed further. The case raises several issues. First, the case currently exists just as an ICAO decision, so it does not have precedential value in front of ALJs. In the event that the Court of Appeals thinks a decision it comes to in Yeutter clarifies how a DIME’s opinion can be applied, it may be selected for publication, which would provide for precedential value. A rare dissent at ICAO may lead to a published decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals.

DIMEs: DIMEs only receive a clear and convincing evidence burden over the numbers, meaning MMI and impairment. The issues of MMI and impairment are tied directly to Claimant’s physical condition, including whatever body parts may have been injured. In this case it appears undisputed that Claimant had narcolepsy and that the narcolepsy was disabling. Further, the DIME deferred to the treating physician over whether narcolepsy was related to the work injury. The treating physician’s opinion was that the narcolepsy was work injury related. A primary dispute at the PTD hearing was whether Claimant’s narcolepsy was related to the injury. It should be noted that the ALJ insulated his opinion, at least as to PTD, by finding that, even if narcolepsy was related to the work injury and disabling, Claimant was still able to earn wages. Regardless, the issue remains over how to untangle the DIME numbers from the physical condition of Claimant and what untangling these things means in a claim.

Incentives: Respondents may have different incentives to contest a body part as not related to the work injury through the progression of the claim. For instance, respondents may elect to pay medical benefits for conditions that may not be part of the work injury. It simply may not be worth challenging treatment for a condition when balancing that issue against the cost of care. In Yeutter, Respondents accepted an impairment rating in the context of a clear and convincing evidence burden over that number. The incentive to challenge the narcolepsy was significantly higher in the context of a PTD, thus the challenge to the narcolepsy.

 

BOTTOM LINE

If further appealed, the Yeutter case may flesh-out some logical inconsistencies. There is a fundamental fairness in not having Claimant go into every hearing prepared to litigate compensability of body parts that have previously been accepted as a part of the work injury in terms of treatment and even impairment. Further, Respondents should make a decision whether or not to challenge a body part as related to the work injury at some determinable point in a claim, knowing that determination will become a part of the claim moving forward. A DIME opinion over relatedness of a body part, whether a component of MMI or impairment, may be that determinable point for that decision. In the alternative, this could be the subject of a legislative fix.

The Workers’ Compensation System as a Prescription for Addiction

The workers’ compensation (WC) system provides the perfect prescription for opioid addiction. There are three types of injured workers that fall into this lair: active addicts, recovered addicts who relapse after taking medications following a work injury, and the neophyte who becomes addicted following their work injury. Thus, the system, although well-intentioned, creates and perpetuates dependency and addiction.

 

A WC claim can provide a lifetime funding source for medication and temporary and permanent disability benefits. One of the most frequent claims is a back claim. Pain cannot be objectively measured. The injured worker complains of pain that is aggravated by work. His physician prescribes opioids and restricts him from working. He is paid for his lost wages. The system for rating permanent impairment automatically qualifies him for an impairment rating after six months of medically documented pain, which then translates to an award of permanent disability benefits often worth as much as –one to two years’ of income.

It is well known that workers with opioid abuse have higher claim costs.

 

While estimates vary, it is believed that the top 5 percent of opioid users likely account for more than half of total opioid use.

When those individuals find their way into the WC system, insignificant injuries turn into nightmare claims. These often involve multiple medical procedures, permanent total disability, and sometimes drug overdose and death. These are difficult and expensive to settle due the thresholds established by Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services requiring that a Medicare Set-Aside fund be established as part of a settlement to ensure Medicare does not have to pay for any medical treatment that it deems to be the responsibility of WC. The lifetime projected cost of the opioid medication alone can often cost half a million dollars.

 

In the late 1990s, it was thought that doctors were undertreating pain and that opioid analgesics could safely ease the suffering. Following the increase in opioid prescriptions, deaths began to escalate. In response, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released new guidelines concerning prescribing opioids for chronic pain in March 2016. According to the CDC, from 1999 through 2014, more than 165,000 people died from opioid-related deaths in the U.S.

 

In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid medications. That is one prescription for every adult in the U.S.

 

The guidelines have caused some backlash from physicians and patients who believe the government is interfering with the patient-physician relationship. However, there is a fundamental agreement that more oversight and education is needed at all levels.

 

Long-term opioid use can be counterproductive in workers’ compensation and can be a contributing factor in an injured worker not returning to the workplace. The use of opioids for acute pain and cancer pain is accepted, where symptom relief rather than functional outcome is the goal. However, the use of opioids for chronic pain is controversial; it could be contraindicated and may “do harm.” Opioids cause known side effects of hyperalgesia, constipation, hypogonadism, dizziness, drowsiness, overdose potential, etc. The CDC guidelines[1] note that opioid use disorder “is manifested by specific criteria such as an unsuccessful effort to cut down or control use resulting in social problems and a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.”

 

The Colorado Division of Workers’ Compensation (CDOW) issued amended medical treatment guidelines (MTG) for Chronic Pain Disorder and for Chronic Regional Pain effective November 30, 2017. CDOWC relies heavily on the CDC guidelines. The guidelines, though not binding on any physician, are peer-reviewed by both experts in the field and industry stakeholders.

 

The MTG suggest that chronic use of opioids is not recommended if the patient has an active or previous history of substance abuse or for workers in safety-sensitive positions. Opioids for chronic pain should not be prescribed unless there was a failure of pain management alternatives by a motivated patient including active and cognitive behavioral therapies. A full physical and psychological assessment must be performed. The physician must consider risk factors, including history of severe post-operative pain, opioid tolerance, chronic pain, sleep apnea, being off work for over six months, depression, anxiety, psychiatric disease or disorder, history of substance use disorder, complaint of all-over body pain, opioid sensitivities, and history of intrathecal pump use or spinal cord stimulator.

 

When opioids are prescribed, the physician should continue prescriptions only if “meaningful improvement” in pain and function outweighs the risk of continued use. The guidelines recommend that the patients demonstrate a 30 percent improvement in pain scores and function to justify continued opioid use. In other words, opioids must be used as a method to improve function rather than just sustain the status quo condition. The physician should actively review patient history of controlled substances, document improved function, consult the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and conduct random drug screenings.

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[1] The CDC guidelines can be found at www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm655051e1.htm.


This article was originally published with Best Lawyers® “Legal Insights” on www.BestLawyers.com.”

 

Settlement Procedures in Workers’ Compensation

Member Joseph Gren co-authored an article for the Colorado Lawyer, July 2017 edition. The article, Settlement Procedures in Workers’ Compensation, is an in-depth explanation of the unique procedural requirements governing settlement of Colorado Workers’ Compensation Claims.

The Colorado Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act) has permitted settlement of workers’ compensation claims since at least 1919. As in civil cases, the Act and accompanying Division of Workers’ Compensation (DOWC or Division) rules permit both represented and pro se parties to settle workers’ compensation claims, though there are procedural safeguards unique to the workers’ compensation system. Similar to legal matters outside of the workers’ compensation context, settlement is often an attractive resolution for parties, as settlement can expedite finality and reduce overall risk and exposure. Legal authority for settlement of workers’ compensation claims lies in statute, case law, and the Workers’ Compensation Rules of Procedure (WCRP). DOWC recently amended and renumbered the procedural rules related to settlement effective April 15, 2016, and September 14, 2016.

This article provides a practical overview of the settlement procedure for Colorado workers’ compensation claims and highlights recent changes to administrative rules.

Click this link, or the link in the article name, to read the full article. A new tab will open with the PDF.

LEGISLATIVE UPDATE — FIRST RESPONDERS’ COVERAGE FOR PTSD

2017 saw more legislative action related to workers’ compensation than Colorado has seen for the past few years.  Three bills were introduced in the Colorado Legislature and all three passed.  One of the newly enacted bills, HB 17-1229, was enacted on June 5, 2017, with an effective date of July 1, 2018 (subject to exception)[1].  It amends section 8-41-301, C.R.S., relating to the conditions of recovery for claims of mental impairment.  Under the current law, an employee can file a “mental only” (i.e., there is no associated physical injury) claim only as a result of employment-related situations consisting of a “psychologically traumatic event that is generally outside of a worker’s usual experience and would evoke significant symptoms of distress in a worker in similar circumstances”.   The claimed mental impairment must be proven by the testimony of a licensed physician or psychologist.  Strict judicial interpretation of this statutory language resulted in the de facto disqualification of police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders from the receipt of mental impairment benefits for PTSD claims because violent and bloody incidents, including the deaths of others, were deemed to be within their “usual” work experience.   While it is true some of these professionals do encounter repeat exposure to horrific events as part of their typical work experience without impact, others struggle to secure the coverage and psychiatric care they need to help them deal with gruesome work situations, which might be “expected” in their occupation, but are still somewhat atypical.  Section 8-41-301, C.R.S., as amended, allows workers to claim workers’ compensation coverage for PTSD in a limited set of circumstances, based on repeated exposure to violent incidents.  It also retains the statute’s existing requirement that, outside the few exceptions that apply primarily to peace officers and first responders, mental impairment coverage is implicated only when an incident is outside a worker’s usual experience.  As before, a mental impairment shall not be considered to arise out of and in the course of employment if it results from a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, lay off, demotion, promotion, termination, retirement, or similar action taken in good faith by the employer. To qualify for mental impairment benefits under the amended statute, the worker must be diagnosed with PTSD by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist following exposure to one or more of the following events:

 

  • The worker is the subject of an attempt by another person to cause the worker serious bodily injury or death through the use of deadly force, and the worker reasonably believes the worker is the subject of the attempt;
  • The worker visually witnesses a death, or the immediate aftermath of the death, of one or more people as a result of a violent event; or
  • The worker repeatedly visually witnesses the serious bodily injury, or the immediate aftermath of the serious bodily injury, of one or more people as the result of the intentional act of another person or an accident.

 

These changes to the mental impairment statute achieve a balance that is fair to first responders, while maintaining appropriate limitations on coverage for others in nonviolent occupations, and protecting the interests of employers and insurers.  The act applies to injuries sustained on or after its effective date, July 1, 2018.

If you have questions about the recently enacted workers’ compensation legislation, or any questions about workers’ compensation, please contact us.

 

[1] This act takes effect July 1, 2018; except that, if a referendum petition is filed pursuant to the applicable state constitutional provision, then the act will not take effect unless approved by the people at the November 2018 general election.

OBAMA-ERA FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACT OVERTIME RULE DEFEATED

Last year, the Department of Labor instituted a new overtime rule under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which required employers to pay a little more than $47,000 annually to qualify under the white-collar exemptions.  This rule had previously been in limbo given that a Texas Federal District Court judge prevented its enforcement last Thanksgiving.  The same judge has now recently struck down the rule permanently.  Accordingly, short of a successful appeal, employers can now feel safe that the new rule will not be implemented.

 

The FLSA requires that employers pay non-exempt employees overtime for any hours worked beyond 40 hours in a week. An employee must satisfy three conditions to be considered exempt from overtime requirements:

 

  1. the employee must be paid a fixed salary;
  2. the salary must meet a minimum threshold; and
  3. the position must meet certain duties requirements applicable to executive, administrative, or professional positions.

 

Under the Obama administration, the DOL more than doubled the minimum salary requirement, taking it from $455 per week to $915 per week. Additionally, the threshold would have been scheduled to increase again in the year 2020 under an automatic 3-year increase the rule sought to implement.

 

Overview of the Recent Decision

The judge determined that the Department of Labor exceeded its authority in promulgating a new rule, with a salary requirement so high to essentially eliminate the requirement that exempt employees perform executive, administrative, or professional duties.  The judge was clear that the Department of Labor still retains the ability to issue a salary threshold test but the Department went too far.  There is no incite from the decision as to what would be a proper threshold.  The effect of this decision is that the Department’s authority to implement a salary test is now limited.

 

Takeaway for Employers

A sigh of relief can now be taken by all employers who did not want to see the exemption salary requirements increased.  Accordingly, employers do not have to raise salaries of exempt employees to meet the rule’s new threshold or change previously exempt employees to non-exempt status where salaries fell below the threshold.  If an employer has already adjusted its compensation scheme to comply with the new rule, it can consider whether reversing course will impact the workforce.

 

Please contact us with any questions!