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Employees who are injured on the job are rarely in perfect health before the work-related injury occurs. The issues of whether an injury is a result of a preexisting condition and whether the injury is work-related are subjects of much litigation in Georgia workers’ compensation claims.

Doctor's CoatA recent case considered whether a claimant was entitled to benefits for a back injury despite a preexisting back injury. The claimant injured his lower back while he was working underground at a mine site. He claimed that he hit a large hole while he was driving a shuttle car underground, causing an injury to his lower back.

Afterwards, he told his foreman he had been injured and needed to go home. He saw a doctor the following day, who determined that he had a lumbar disc protrusion with nerve root compression. An MRI showed that he had a right lateral disc herniation and disc bulge at L4-5. His supervisors later stated that the claimant did not tell them his back injury occurred as a result of the alleged injury in the shuttle car, but he was not sure when it occurred.

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Whether an individual qualifies as an “employee” under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act is not always a straightforward determination. Although some individuals clearly fall within the definition of employee, and others are statutorily defined as employees under the Act, some workers can have a hard time proving their employee status, preventing them from recovering workers’ compensation benefits. In a recent appellate decision, one court considered whether a volunteer driver who was involved in a serious car accident fell under that state’s definition of employee.

Shuttle DriverThe Facts

In that case, the county’s transportation agency had a program that transported residents to medical and other appointments through the use of volunteer drivers. The claimant applied to be a driver in the volunteer program. On the application, she stated that she was working “too much” as a volunteer guardian ad litem “w/o pay” and “[n]eed[ed] [a] little extra.”

The county’s volunteer manual stated that there was no employment contract between the county and the volunteer driver. As a volunteer driver, the claimant received around $260 per week, which was based on her mileage each week. Drivers were required to submit a record of miles driven and received money based on the miles driven. The driver’s manual referred to the payment as reimbursement. It was the only form of payment between the county and the drivers.

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The Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act applies to employees’ accidental injuries that arise out of and in the course of employment. However, whether an injury arose out of and in the course of employment is not always clear-cut. For example, although courts generally hold that injuries that occur on the way to work are not compensable, in some cases, those injuries are compensable under the Act.

Shattered WindowsIn a recent case, an employee was injured in a car accident while she was on her way to a work training on a Saturday. She normally did not work on Saturdays but was on her way to a mandatory training. She was originally awarded workers’ compensation benefits, but her employer appealed the decision. Her employer argued that the “going and coming rule” barred her from recovering benefits because she was on her way to work when the accident occurred.

The “Going to/Coming from” Rule

The going to/coming from rule precludes benefit eligibility for injuries occurring when an employee sustains injuries while going to or coming from the employee’s place of employment. Under the rule, these accidents are not considered to “arise out of and in the course of employment,” as required under the Act. The idea is that an employer should not be liable for injuries that arose during an employee’s commute.

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When someone is injured in a Georgia workplace accident, they are generally entitled to benefits through the Georgia workers’ compensation program. In essence, the workers’ compensation program is a no-fault program by which injured employees are able to quickly obtain benefits while they are injured and unable to work. The amount and duration of benefits varies, depending on the type of work and the severity of the injuries sustained.

Jack HammerHowever, in order for someone to be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits, they must be considered an “employee.” This requirement is the focus of litigation in many workers’ compensation cases, especially in situations in which the parties’ relationship is not well-defined or reduced to a contract.

With the recent increase in companies hiring independent contractors, courts have caught on that some employers are masking their employees as contractors to avoid providing benefits. Thus, proving that a worker is a “contractor” requires more than merely putting that label on them.

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When Georgia workers are injured, they are generally entitled to compensation during the time they are unable to work under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation program. However, these days, many people work more than one job, raising the question of whether those earnings may limit a worker’s compensation. In one recent case, a Georgia appeals court considered this question in the context of a Federal Employers’ Liability Act claim.

RailroadIn that case, the employee injured his back at work. After the injury, the employee filed a claim against his employer under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), seeking compensation for his injuries. He claimed to have suffered mental and physical pain and suffering, lost wages, and loss of earning capacity.

Before and after the accident, the employee had a side business repairing cars, and he earned money from that business while he was on leave for his injury. The employer tried to introduce this evidence at trial, but the trial court decided the evidence was irrelevant to his claim. The jury found in the employee’s favor and awarded him over $500,000 in damages. The employer appealed the verdict, arguing the court should not have excluded the evidence about the employee’s side business.

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All employers are required to provide a safe workplace for their employees. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets and enforces workplace safety standards, and all employers are required to comply with OSHA’s standards. OSHA monitors working conditions and issues citations and penalties to employers that fail to comply with its standards in Georgia and throughout the country.

Train StationAlthough the existence of an OSHA citation or penalty will not necessarily have an impact on a Georgia workers’ compensation claim, it may have an impact in some circumstances. For example, in some states, a worker may actually be entitled to increased benefits if an employer is issued an OSHA citation. Evidence of a willful OSHA violation may also be used to opt out of workers’ compensation or to bring a claim against another party, allowing an injured worker to potentially receive greater benefits.

That being said, an employee who is injured at work can still be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, regardless of whether the employer is issued or accepts an OSHA citation. As the following discussion illustrates, employers are required to be familiar with OSHA regulations, and ignorance of the agency’s standards is not a valid defense for employers attempting to contest penalties.

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Since workplace injuries are generally governed by workers’ compensation laws, bringing a Georgia work injury claim against a coworker can be complicated. In a recent case, one state’s supreme court rejected the claims of two plaintiffs brought against coworkers due to the state’s workers’ compensation laws.

Power LinesIn both cases, the plaintiffs were injured at work. In one case, the employee touched a power line that he thought had been turned off. He was thrown off the platform, and the injury rendered him a quadriplegic. He alleged a coworker was negligent because the coworker used the wrong tool to de-energize the power line. The plaintiff also alleged his supervisor was negligent, since his supervisor was responsible for enforcing the company’s policy on safely de-energizing a power line, and he told the employee the line had been de-energized, even though he had not properly confirmed that it was.

In the other case, the employee was injured when a forklift hit him and ran over his foot. His coworker was driving a forklift when it allegedly hit a rock, causing it to shift and hit the employee. The employee alleged his coworker was negligent in operating the forklift.

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In some Georgia workers’ compensation cases, the question of whether an individual is an employee under the workers’ compensation act is not so clear. In a recent case, one state’s supreme court considered whether a student teacher was entitled to benefits despite not being paid for her position.

Classroom DeskThe Facts of the Case

The student teacher was in the process of obtaining her teacher’s license, which required she complete 12 weeks of student teaching. She was enrolled in a school that placed her in a classroom four days a week. She was required to submit an application for student teaching. The school principal and the classroom teacher were ultimately responsible for selecting the student teacher. The title of the position was referred to in various capacities as student teacher, intern, and preservice teacher. The student teacher was required to work the same hours as the mentor teacher and to attend staff meetings and school activities. She had a school identification car, school email address, and keys to the school, but she was not allowed to compose any documents that would become part of a student’s record.

The student teacher slipped and fell while at work, injuring her back, hip, and leg, and filed for workers’ compensation benefits. The school argued that she was not an employee and was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. The workers’ compensation judge decided she was not an employee within the meaning of the workers’ compensation act, primarily since she was not paid for her work at the school.

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The Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act can provide many benefits to Georgia claimants. Yet it can also act as a roadblock to certain claims, as one recent case illustrates.

Snowy RoadIn that case, a hospital employee in Missouri was a courier who was responsible for delivering medical supplies. He was supposed to work on a day when there was a severe winter storm. His supervisor asked his superior whether the employee should drive that day, and he was told that he should but that he should drive slowly and carefully. During his shift, the employee’s supervisor called the employee to check on him, and the employee said that his windshield was freezing. The supervisor called his superior again, who said that he should continue to work. Later during his shift, the employee’s vehicle slid off the road, and the employee died as a result. The employee was not delivering any supplies that needed immediate delivery.

The employee’s wife sued the two supervisors for wrongful death, claiming they were negligent in directing the employee to drive his route despite the conditions. The defendants argued the lawsuit was barred by the exclusivity provision in the state’s workers’ compensation act.

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In some Georgia workers’ compensation claims, injured employees may receive benefits for emotional injuries as well as physical injuries. In a recent case, one state’s appeals court considered a psychiatric injury claim after a construction site accident.

BulldozerIn that case, the construction worker was operating a soil compactor on a hill, and the compactor rose up in the air, causing it to fall backwards on top of the worker. The worker filed for workers’ compensation benefits, and the workers’ compensation judge found the worker sustained a back injury and a psychiatric injury.

Under that state’s law, since the worker had worked at his job for less than six months, his psychiatric injury was compensable if it was caused by a “sudden and extraordinary employment condition.” Courts interpreted that standard to mean that the event was not a routine physical injury but instead was an event that would be expected to cause a psychiatric injury, such as an explosion or workplace violence. The worker was required to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the event was “something other than a regular and routine employment event or condition” and that the event “was uncommon, unusual, and occurred unexpectedly.”

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