Articles Posted in Workers’ Compensation Case Law

As states continue to legalize medical marijuana, courts handling workers’ compensation cases have to consider whether it can be covered as medical treatment. As Georgia expanded its medical marijuana program last year, this issue could soon arise in Georgia workers’ compensation cases.

In a recent case, the claimant sustained a back injury while he was working at a paper mill in the 1980s. His employer agreed to place the claimant on total disability. He continued to suffer from chronic pain, and in January 2012 the claimant was issued a certification to use medical marijuana for his back pain. He subsequently filed a petition seeking payment from his employer for the cost of the medical marijuana. The employer argued that an order requiring it to pay for the medical marijuana was barred by the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Maine’s Supreme Court considered the issue for the first time in the state. The majority decided that there was a conflict between federal and state law, and that in the circumstances presented in that case, the federal Controlled Substances Act preempted the state law. Maine’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act allows qualifying patient to possess a certain amount of marijuana for personal use.

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Generally speaking, Georgia workers’ compensation claimants may be entitled to benefits if they are injured while working at an out-of-town job site. However, in a recent case a court rejected a claimant’s request for benefits after he was hit by a drunk driver while working out-of-town.

The claimant had been working as a laborer on a roofing job in another town. The claimant and other employees working on the project were staying at the hotel during the week. Every day, the claimant and the other employees would leave around 6 or 7 am in company trucks and return around 6 or 7 pm. The workers were paid from the time they left the hotel until the time they arrived back. After they arrived back at the hotel, the workers were free to do what they wanted. The workers were allowed to use a company truck to run errands if they obtained permission, but were not allowed to take a company truck to a bar.

The night of the injury, the claimant was walking from a bar across the street to his hotel in the early morning when he was hit by a drunk driver. He suffered serious injuries, including having to have his right leg, a finger, and a toe amputated. He applied for workers’ compensation benefits, claiming that his injuries were the result of a hazard created by the requirement that he travel to the roofing project. The administrative law judge granted him benefits, but the Workers Compensation Board denied the claim.

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In a recent case, an appeals court considered whether a positive drug test could be used against a claimant who was denied Georgia workers’ compensation benefits.

The Facts of the Case

The claimant was employed at a cotton gin company. He was working at the loading dock one day when a truck backed up and hit him from behind. He was crushed between the truck and the loading dock and suffered multiple injuries, including pelvic, chest, and rib fractures.

The company requested a drug test, and a lab technician obtained a urine sample while the claimant was at the hospital. The test came back positive for the presence of cannabinoid metabolites. One of the claimant’s coworkers testified that they had smoked marijuana at work together on the morning of the injury. The claimant testified that he only smoked marijuana when he was not working. The claimant also presented an expert witness who testified that marijuana metabolites can be present in urine for days or even weeks after marijuana is smoked. The employer asserted that the worker was impaired and, as a result, did not hear the truck backing up before he was struck.

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The Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act and its State Board of Workers’ Compensation provide parties with specific laws and procedures to follow in Georgia workers’ compensation claims. In a recent Georgia case, an appeals court considered the impact of an employer’s challenge to an employee’s claim on her ability to choose her own treating physician.

In that case, the claimant had been working as a banquet server at a hotel when she slipped and fell, seriously injuring her elbow. She suffered a right elbow fracture and sought treatment through an approved orthopedic specialist. Her condition improved and the doctor authorized her return to work. After she returned to work, however, she experienced severe pain and she subsequently stopped working. Before she left her job, she sought treatment with two other doctors who were not approved by her employer.

After she left her job, the claimant tried to have her workers’ compensation benefits reinstated, claiming that her condition had worsened. Her employer requested a hearing to determine whether she was still entitled to benefits. After the hearing, the judge found her condition had worsened and awarded her temporary total disability benefits. The judge also found the employer’s request for a hearing constituted a controvert of the claim, which allowed the claimant to choose her own treating physician.

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Procedural requirements can be easily overlooked in Georgia workers’ compensation cases. Yet, understanding each party’s duties and responsibilities is extremely important. In a recent case, one state’s supreme court found a claimant could keep an overpayment of workers’ compensation benefits after the employer failed to follow the procedure outlined in the statute.

The claimant in the case worked as a shuttle driver for his employer. One day, the claimant stepped on the frame of a truck and slipped. He fractured his left ankle and had to have several surgeries.

The claimant sought workers’ compensation benefits and received temporary total disability benefits of $67.37 per day. The employer had paid workers’ compensation benefits to the claimant while the claimant was undergoing medical and physical rehabilitation. Almost two-and-a-half years later, the claimant’s doctor reported that the claimant had reached his maximum degree of medical improvement.

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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.

A 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.

The 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.

In 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.

However, 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.

In 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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