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Gregory v. Cott – Workers’ Compensation Exclusive Remedy for Some Injured Health Workers

Health care workers, including those who provide in-home care, are at high risk for violence on the job, especially when working with patients suffering from dementia, accompanied by aggression.
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However, these workers may have difficulty securing damages from the patient and/or the patient’s family if injured in an attack by the patient. In many of these cases, our Atlanta workers’ compensation lawyers recognize workers’ compensation benefits are likely to be the only remedy.

The recent case of Gregory v. Cott, decided recently by the California Supreme Court, illustrates the issues.

Here, a home health care worker was contracted to care for an 85-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s disease. The patient lived at home with her husband, but required more supervision and day-to-day care than what he could provide. The worker was tasked with bathing, supervising, dressing and transporting the patient, as well as occasionally doing light housework.

Having previously worked in a home health care setting with Alzheimer’s patients, she was aware that sometimes they could have a proclivity to violence. In fact, the husband in this case warned the worker before she began that his wife sometimes acted out by biting, kicking, hitting or scratching.

Aggression in Alzheimer’s patients is commonly noted, particularly in the more advanced stages. It’s most often the expression of fear, confusion or frustration, rather than an actual attempt to hurt someone. But while the mind is weak, these patients can still inflict serious damage to caregivers or those attempting to restrain them.

Here, the caregiver was at home alone with the patient, washing a knife, when the patient came up from behind and reached for the knife. A brief struggle ensued, and the worker suffered a deep gash to her wrist that resulted in permanent loss of feeling in part of her hand and chronic pain.

She sought and received workers’ compensation benefits for her injuries. However, she also sought to collect damages for negligence from the patient and her husband. In a split decision by the state supreme court, however, justices rejected the basic premise of her argument. The court held those with Alzheimer’s disease can’t be liable for injuries they inflict on health care workers.

The reasoning is that those who accept these work assignments understand and assume the risk of physical harm, consistent with the manifestation of aggressive known to be common with sufferers of this disease. In other words, they can’t sue clients for injuries caused by the very risks they have been trained and hired to confront.

This kind of policy, the court indicated, is important in terms of ensuring disabled parties are not automatically relegated to institutions. The court reasoned loved ones would be more apt to institutionalize loved ones if they knew they could face liability if their loved ones harmed a health care worker in their home.

This does not mean home health care workers should not be protected. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, having identified home health care workers as particularly vulnerable to physical attacks, issued a report to guide both employers and workers on how to minimize the risk.

Among the steps employers can take:

  • Establish a clear zero-tolerance policy for all violent incidents.
  • Train workers on how to recognize and prevent workplace violence.
  • Thoroughly investigate all reports of violence.
  • Work with police to identify potentially dangerous neighborhoods where special precautions might need to be taken, and inform workers of the information received.
  • Encourage employees to report any observance of unsecured weapons in the client’s home.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.

Additional Resources:
Gregory v. Cott, Aug. 4, 2014, California Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Williams v. Petromark Drilling – Coming-and-Going Rule Challenged, June 20, 2014, Atlanta Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog