Tag Archives: WC

What Happened on the Oklahoma Option?

Regarding the Dillard’s v. Vasquez ruling, I point everyone to the dissenting opinion, which is so insightful and succinct that all concerned parties should read it.

The majority’s opinions ruling the Oklahoma Option unconstitutional were predictable in light of a number of cases on which the justices have opined over the past several months. For the fully developed rationale behind my own rejection of their poor decisions, I refer you to an essay I wrote four months ago: “Why Oklahoma’s Title 85A Has Been Right for the Sooner State Since 1917.” Leaning heavily on that essay and the aforementioned dissenting opinion from Justice Winchester, I offer a few thoughts below.

See also: An Open Letter on the Oklahoma Option  

Grand v. Petit Bargain

In my aforementioned essay, I introduce the concept that the petit bargain replaced the Grand Bargain over the past half century. This evolution can be summarized as follows:

Genesis of the Grand Bargain circa 1910

  • Before the Grand Bargain, employers could use extremely powerful (and unfair) common law defenses when sued by employees who were injured on the job.
  • Importantly, the only legal exposures by employers prior to the Grand Bargain were limited to: a) defense costs and b) damages when found negligent.
  • The Grand Bargain was meant to adjust this arrangement by: a) minimizing legal costs while b) dumping the medical and lost wage expense of workplace injuries on the employer.
  • The employee, therefore, would have a mitigated but universal solution via a no-fault system.

Incremental Incorporation of the Petit Bargain circa 1960

  • The legal community was excluded from the Grand Bargain except in rare cases of dispute.
  • Since disputes led to involvement, attorneys found ways to expand the grounds for disputes.
  • Attorneys (both plaintiff and defense) have steadily increased their standing, sophistication of arguments and expenses in workers’ compensation (WC).
  • For all WC cases (win or lose, plaintiff and defense) medical AND legal expenses are billed to employers.
  • Dispute resolution became the norm in many states’ WC systems—with Oklahoma being near the top of that unfortunate list prior to the overhaul of 2013.

The above summary demonstrates deft, self-serving maneuvers by the legal community until 2013. Recent court decisions are less deft and more blatant in their promotion of antagonism between employers and employees. The above summary should also help explain statements such as the one below from Mark Schell, co-chair of the Oklahoma Injury Benefit Coalition (the lobbying force behind the statutory overhaul):

The OIBC will continue to work with the [l]egislature to preserve and improve the progress that this historic legislation has provided Oklahoma despite the opposition of those who cling to the old, more litigious system from which they benefited.

What concerned parties need to understand about Oklahoma politics is that the state bar association has a lot of control over who sits on the state’s Supreme Court. Justices are therefore subservient to the collective agenda of attorneys throughout the state. The petit bargain is a financial windfall for attorneys and judges. Eliminating the costs of these disputes is not a prospect they want to consider, because very few attorneys fare well when everyone is happy. To avoid that conversation, lawyers and judges pretend to be united in their commitment to traditional and patriotic notions of due process—notions that are misplaced in the world of Grand Bargain legislation, which is all about special adjudication (a distinction explained in more detail in my above-linked essay).

Gurich Opinion

The Gurich opinion bears some clarification, as her argument included multiple logical flaws that inattentive readers may have missed.

See also: The Pretzel Logic on Oklahoma Option

After offering a false dichotomy in her first sentence, Gurich spends several pages discussing the red herring of Texas nonsubscription. She follows that up with a straw man argument against the false narrative of ERISA before concluding with a classic equivocation in her misuse of “exclusive.” Logicians and rhetoricians throughout the nation should be impressed with her argument’s brazenness (if not its efficacy).

More important than detailing Gurich’s sophistries are Winchester’s comments in his concise dissent.

Next

Several months ago, we at WorkersCompensationOptions.com could see the writing of this decision on the wall, so we helped draft House Bill 2205, which addresses virtually all the concerns put forth by the Supremes yesterday. That bill had more than enough support last session to pass. We suspect the same will hold true this next session. It is now up to the legislature—as spokesmen of the citizens of Oklahoma—to determine what the next step is.

A Victory for Exclusive Remedy on Asbestos

In a recent case, the 2nd Appellate District of California declined to open an new avenue to avoid the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation in Melendrez v Ameron International Corporation, not only upholding the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for defendant/employer but also allowing the defendant to recover expert witness fees.

The employee, Lario Melendrez, was employed by Ameron for 24 years and was exposed to asbestos from insulation products. In 2011, he died from mesothelioma related to his asbestos exposure. His survivors/plaintiffs attempted to circumvent the exclusive remedy rule by alleging the employee had been allowed to take waste and scraps of insulated pipe home for personal use. Plaintiffs asserted the employee should not be shielded by workers’ compensation exclusivity for his non-work-related use of the employer’s asbestos products. Neither the trial court nor the appellate courts agreed with the effort to create a new exception to the exclusive remedy rule. The Appellate Court commented as follows:

“While we agree that a triable issue of fact exists whether Melendrez’s exposure to asbestos at home arose out of and in the course of his employment with Ameron, that issue is not material to the viability of Ameron’s defense of workers’ compensation exclusivity. It is undisputed that Melendrez’s exposure to asbestos in his employment with Ameron substantially contributed to his mesothelioma. Therefore, under the contributing cause standard applicable in workers’ compensation law, his mesothelioma is covered by workers’ compensation, and his separate exposure at home does not create a separate injury outside workers’ compensation coverage. Thus, plaintiffs’ lawsuit is barred by workers’ compensation exclusivity.”

Citing the recent California Supreme Court holding in South Coast Framing, the 2nd district held:

“Given the purposes of workers’ compensation, courts have long applied a broad concept of contributing cause to bring injuries within workers’ compensation coverage. In short, if a substantial contributing cause of an injury arises out of and in the course of employment, the injury is covered by workers’ compensation, even if another, nonindustrial cause also substantially contributed to the injury. As recently explained in South Coast Framing, Inc. v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (2015) 61 Cal.4th 291 (South Coast Framing): “[T]he workers’ compensation system is not based upon fault. ‘It seeks (1) to ensure that the cost of industrial injuries will be part of the cost of goods rather than a burden on society, (2) to guarantee prompt, limited compensation for an employee’s work injuries, regardless of fault, as an inevitable cost of production, (3) to spur increased industrial safety, and (4) in return, to insulate the employer from tort liability for his employees’ injuries.’…”

The court also cited case law that had established that the exclusivity provisions of workers’ compensation also apply to collateral or derivative injuries:

“[C]ourts have regularly barred claims where the alleged injury is collateral to or derivative of a compensable workplace injury.”… see also Vacanti, supra, 24 Cal.4th at p. 815 [“courts have barred employees from suing for psychic injuries caused by their termination, or their employer’s abusive conduct during the termination process]; LeFiell, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 284 [“‘[c]ourts have held that the exclusive jurisdiction provisions bar civil actions against employers by nondependent parents of an employee for the employee’s wrongful death, by an employee’s spouse for loss of the employee’s services or consortium, and for emotional distress suffered by a spouse in witnessing the employee’s injuries…'”

The court further distinguished authorities proposed by plaintiff to expand the ability to escape the exclusivity clause. In each of the cases cited by plaintiff, the court noted there were findings that the employee was not performing any service related to employment or even actions prohibited by his employer. In each of those cases, the injury was solely related to the non-work-related episode, and the plaintiff offered no authority to support severing a single injury into separate components as would be required in this case.

Comments and Conclusions:

This case represents an interesting effort to evade the exclusive remedy provisions in workers’ comp. A successful plaintiff’s result could potentially have expanded the ability to file civil actions whenever an employee took home something from work that eventually contributed to a work injury. Think a carpenter who receives permission to take home a tool and later files both a WC injury claim and a civil action against his employer for allowing him to use a work tool at home that resulted in injury. The potential combinations are endless for such scenarios.

Luckily, with this case the exceptions noted by plaintiffs in their brief will remain isolated and not expanded under this ruling.

How to Avoid Work Comp ‘Fact-cidents’

Every workers’ compensation claim is not preventable, when you consider that some are deliberate. With due respect to the art and science of safety, preventing real physical accidents and repetitive traumas is essential. However, we also need to be mindful of and prepared for the non-accident accident. Let us refer to these situations as “fact-cidents” because their construct relies on the ability of a claimant to tell a credible story void of facts.

First of all, let’s establish fact-cident detection as an employer’s responsibility. An adjuster with the best list of “red flags” cannot match the gut instinct of an astute employer who knows an employee’s history and extraneous issues and has opportunity to look that employee in the eye. An unwitnessed fall out of a chair or a bump against a restroom-stall door, or a “giving out” of the knee when turning with a parts tray in hand can be very valid claims… until they are not, mainly because the employer knows something deeper about the employee’s motivation.

The employer must share concerns with the adjuster within the early hours or days of a claim to support heightened focus. Most fact-cidents cannot simply be denied. Very quick work is required. The good news is that fact-cident defense is time-consuming but not complicated. It simply involves obtaining multiple verifications of the story. Just like the old saying, “there is no such thing as the perfect crime,” there is also no such thing as the perfect false claim. Enough prodding will diminish credibility and isolate the fact-cident for the house of cards that it is.

Quick Tip: Ask, Ask Again and Ask Some More

An injured worker should be required to reiterate his story four to six times within the first 48 hours. Here is an optimal sequence:

– Report to supervisor, who writes down claimant’s account

– Call in to triage line, where a nurse interviews and records claimant’s detailed account

– Workers’ comp lead (WC or risk manager, HR, benefits, company nurse, etc.) requires discussion and writes down another reiteration of the incident

– Treating doctor requires a detailed reiteration of the incident as part of history

– Adjuster takes recorded statement of the claimant’s account

– Adjuster and employer-leaders separately circle back to claimant after doctor visit to get claimant’s version of the doctor’s assessment

With these multiple stories and queries, the true detective work begins in comparing and sharing claimant versions. Fact-cident claimants notoriously will assume what certain parties want to hear and adjust stories accordingly. They also may enhance their story gradually with each reiteration. After medical visits, they often alter what actually happened or was said by the doctor. Sadly enough, many seem to think they can play all sides to the middle with no cross-checking among the crowd. Don’t let that happen!

The investigative test relies on comparing all versions and then, as might be indicated, sharing with other parties. For example, if the initial supervisor and HR manager reports mention non-falling incident with ankle pain but the version to the doctor claims a fall to the floor adding hip, back and elbow pain, you have an immediate piece of evidence validating suspicions. You can confidently invest and engage denial, defense, independent medical exam (IME), surveillance, field nurse, et. al.

Inconsistencies can also be presented to the doctor for review and revision or re-exam to correct any false reliance on claimant’s story. If possible, with cooperative providers, the early internal reports can be shared with treating doctor in real time so she can diligently test the employee’s credibility against other statements.

An even more powerful reason to collect and solidify various versions is to avoid future attorney representation and fact-cident influencing. Worst-case scenario with lack of early employee statements is that an attorney gets to coach the employee into a tighter self-serving story later on.

When you suspect an accident is actually a fact-cident, don’t accept any aspect at face value. Put in the time to either confidently validate and pay the claim or justify heavy investments in defense.

As a bonus, from the big-picture perspective, this type of consistent diligence establishes a general no-nonsense workplace attitude and culture when it comes to workers compensation.

Promoting Peace of Mind in Work Comp

An employee’s peace of mind is equal in concern with the physical injury when it comes to a worker’s comp claim. An upset employee can lose motivation, incur a bad attitude and rationalize the over-use or abuse of WC benefits. I am adamant that employee satisfaction is as key a factor in WC claim outcomes as it is in overall employee productivity and job performance.

It is not the adjuster’s primary role to manage an employee’s peace of mind at the start of a new report. While we expect good “bedside manner” from an adjuster, she must reserve a defensive position and be a “bad-cop” if necessary. An astute employer sees the opportunity in meeting an employee’s concerns at the time of an injury. It is like adding another critical brick to strengthen the foundation of employee satisfaction.

The immediate task can be simple. A little bit of confident communication goes a long way. Step one is to put yourself in the injured employee’s shoes and imagine being faced with an inability to work. It is not a comfortable feeling.

Quick Tip: Prepare a “Top-10” Information Sheet for Quick Use

Concept: Include a quick-reading “Frequently Asked Questions” checklist as part of an overall information packet for new WC claimants.

Suggested Top 10 and Recommended Answers:

1) Which doctor do I use? – Identify the preferred list, contracted clinic or emergency facility. Explain degrees of employee choice if any does exist in your jurisdiction.

2) What if I can’t do my job? – “If the doctor determines you cannot perform your job, we will try to match you with a temporary alternate assignment. If there is no ability for you to work, your wages will be paid as a WC benefit.”

3) How much will I be paid? – Provide the statutory calculation formula for the comp rate and specify that the employee’s specific rate will be determined by the claims adjuster within 48-72 hours.

4) When do I start getting checks? – Explain the jurisdictional waiting period.

5) How do medical bills get paid? – “All bills will be paid directly to the doctors/providers. You do not pay any bills for accepted and covered treatment.”

6) Do I need an attorney? – “We will help facilitate your benefits. An attorney is not necessary unless you face a disputed issue and want it to be heard by a judge. However, it is your option and right to consult an attorney at any time.”

7) What do I do next? – Explain any other internal steps and forms; explain that an adjuster will make contact and go over additional information. If you have a designated adjuster, provide a name and contact info.

8) What about my health benefits / 401k contributions, etc? – Explain your policies and the jurisdictional requirements that continue benefits during a WC claim

9) Will I lose my job or be fired? – Explain that filing a WC claim is not a basis for termination but also reserve the right for progressive discipline because of safety violations, attendance, job abandonment, fraud and any internal policies that might relate to WC situations.

10) What if I have other questions? – Provide a designated internal WC contact with an open-door policy.

Electrodiagnostics: a More Powerful FCE?

My recent post on functional capacity exams (FCEs) is a great lead-in to considering another level of related technology. Let’s explore electrodiagnostics as arguably a more powerful arrival in functional exams.

First, let’s recap what quality means in a functional capacity exam: An FCE requires a process that is objective and consistent with the proper balance between specificity to body parts and sensitivity to critical indicators, including pain, range of motion and strength. An FCE must indicate illegitimate effort and attempts to “game” the test by subjects.

I submit to you that, the more a functional exam process can move away from human-tester interventions and totally separate testing steps, the closer it gets to nirvana. This construct is the essence of electrodiagnostics.

A routine FCE process involves various separate tests, including nerve conduction, range of motion and strength. Even with the most advanced equipment, this presents separate processes to assess for validity and to try and formulate into a whole-body issue. What if one test did all of this at once?

Contemplate the electrodiagnostic functional assessment (EFA), where a test subject performs a single test sequence on specialized EFA equipment that measures multiple factors. This provides instant objective credibility. Stated simply, combined factors of muscle strength, pain and range of motion and others need to align in a logical pattern as depicted by computerized readout, or the subject is immediately shown as self-limiting his capability.

The EFA is arguably more accurate than the common FCE in assessing work capacity. EFA has also been proven useful in more specific applications, such as determining the need for hardware removal in post-surgical cases with alleged recurring pain problems.

Consider further that, because the EFA is such a consistent test, it is highly credible as a comparison to prior baseline. The EFA used as a base-line test at time of hire can be saved as a data file without opening until an employee might have an alleged injury at some later period. At such occasion, a new EFA can be performed to compare with the baseline to see what, if any, alleged changes in capacity and pain threshold have occurred. This definitive comparison has held up in court cases, making the EFA evidence as worthy as an MRI would be in comparing pre- and post-injury pictures of a joint or body part.

Quick Tip: Learn More About EFA and the Possible Application to Your WC Claims

– Google “electrodiagnostic functional assessment” to review white papers and scholarly details around the EFA and its applications and case studies.

– For more information, search out Emerge Diagnostics, which has pioneered the application of EFA and which is making efforts to bring EFA to the forefront of medical and legal use. I do not promote specific vendors in “Quick Tips,” and this article is for informative purposes only. However, the EFA is currently a sole-source situation, and reviewing the studies and successes of Emerge Diagnostics is of educational benefit.

– If you want to be cutting edge, do a trial. Pick a WC case or two that is stalled without adequate determination of disability, causation, apportionment or need for surgery, etc. Work to get an EFA entered as evidence and see if the case can turn.

– If you do try EFA, let me know your results. I would like to continue related reporting on this and see how much future influence EFA might have on the larger WC landscape.