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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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Like most other cases, Georgia workers’ compensation cases must be filed within a certain amount of time. These timeframes are outlined in statutes of limitations. For example, in general, the statute of limitations in Georgia workers’ compensation cases is one year. This means that if an injured worker waits longer than one year to file their claim, it will likely be barred as a matter of law.

Time's UpIn many cases, determining when a statute of limitations begins to run is very straightforward. However, that is not always the case. In some cases, involving a delayed onset illness that was a result of exposure to a dangerous substance, the date of exposure may be months or even years in the past. In these situations, courts will normally use the time from when the employee was diagnosed with the illness or disease.

While most Georgia workers’ compensation claims are filed by injured workers themselves, the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act also permits for the payment of benefits to the surviving loved ones of an employee who died while on the job. In these situations, the statute of limitations is one year from the date of the employee’s death. However, the statute of limitations will not be applied to prevent a dependent minor or someone who is “mentally incompetent” from pursuing a claim for compensation.

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Workplace accidents occur every day in Georgia. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) monitors working conditions throughout the United States and investigates accidents in the workplace. If OSHA discovers uncorrected violations, the employer may be subject to citations and penalties. OSHA’s mission is to improve working conditions for all workers in the United States in order to reduce workplace injuries.

Wall of TiresGeorgia Goodyear Plant Faces Federal Workplace Law Violations

According to one news source, a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Georgia was cited for around $70,000 for failing to follow federal workplace safety laws and creating a risk of Georgia workplace accidents. OSHA recently cited the plant for seven citations after an inspection of its plant in Social Circle, Georgia. The OSHA area office director stated that the organization found “multiple safety deficiencies that put employees at risk of serious injury or death.”

Some of the citations included failing to provide proper protective gear for workers using hot metal presses, leaking equipment on the production floor, and hazards from unguarded machines. A Goodyear spokeswoman stated that the company cooperated with OSHA and that it is following the process to respond to citations.

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Luckily for employees, they do not have to be in perfect health before an injury in order to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits in Georgia. This means that if an employee is injured on the job, the employee may qualify for benefits if the work injury aggravates a preexisting injury.

Garage TruckCourt Rejects Employee’s Aggravation Claim

In a recent case, one state’s supreme court considered whether an employee’s left knee injury aggravated a preexisting injury to his right knee. In that case, the employee injured his left knee while he was working for the city’s street department, first in 2009 and again in 2012. His injuries were covered under the state’s workers’ compensation act. However, the employee later reported pain in his right knee, and he was diagnosed with severe degenerative joint disease of the right knee.

The employee underwent surgery on his right knee but did not seek workers’ compensation approval for the procedure. After the procedure, the employee filed for workers’ compensation benefits for the injury to his right knee. He argued that his left knee injuries aggravated a preexisting degenerating joint disease in his right knee as well. The workers’ compensation commission rejected his claim, and he appealed.

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Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act is meant to give employees a faster and more streamlined way to receive benefits for injuries suffered at work. However, the drawback is that there are limits on what employees can recover under the Act. In some cases, employees attempt to bring claims outside the workers’ compensation system, although in many cases they are barred from doing so.

ContractO.C.G.A. 34-9-11 of Georgia’s Workers’ Compensation Act states that the “rights and remedies” granted to an employee under the Act “shall exclude and be in place of all other rights and remedies of such employee, his or her personal representative, parents, dependents, or next of kin, and all other civil liabilities whatsoever at common law or otherwise, on account of such injury, loss of service, or death.” This means that generally, any claims for injuries incurred at work must be brought under the Workers’ Compensation Act. However, there are exceptions in some cases that may allow employees to bring additional claims.

Court Rejects Breach of Contract Claim, Finding It Barred Under Workers’ Compensation Act

One state’s supreme court found in a recent case that a breach of contract claim was barred by the state’s workers’ compensation act after the man died from a work injury. The man had been injured at work and required multiple surgeries over the next few years as a result. During one hospitalization, he requested an order from the Workers’ Compensation Court that he be treated by a nutritionist, based on a recommendation from his doctors. However, he died before a consultation could be completed. The insurer claimed that it was not required to pay for a nutritional consultation because it argued that his nutritional problems arose prior to his work injury.

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If a worker is injured and files a claim for Georgia workers’ compensation benefits, the employer only has a certain amount of time to investigate the claim and contest compensability. In a recent case, an employer was barred from raising a defense that its employee was intoxicated at the time of his injury because it failed to diligently investigate the claim within the allotted time period.

Tipsy on WineIn that case, the employee fell while emptying garbage from a dumpster while he was working at a fish market. He claimed later that he slipped on a piece of fish. The employer was told about the accident that day, but he did not report the accident to his workers’ compensation insurance carrier. The employee fractured his hip, and due to multiple complications he ended up having five surgeries.

The employee filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits about nine months after the injury, which was the insurance carrier’s first notice of the injury. The employer paid but continued to investigate the claim during the following 120 days it had to do so. But it was not until almost six months after it was notified of the injury that the employer denied that the injury was compensable. The employer claimed that the injury was not compensable because the injury was due to the employee’s intoxication at the time of the injury.

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According to the most recent government statistics, there were over 82,000 Georgia workplace injuries last year. That means that almost 2.7 out of every 100 Georgia employees suffer a work injury each year. This figure is roughly in line with the national rate of workplace injuries, which is 2.9 injuries per 100 workers.

FactoryThe most dangerous workplaces are those that rely heavily on physical labor or require workers to use dangerous machinery. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the jobs that have the highest rate of injury are in the construction, manufacturing, and transportation industries. Interestingly, the education industry also reported a high incident rate of workplace injuries.

As a general matter, employers have a duty to ensure a safe workplace. That being said, not every harm can be remedied, and injuries will occur at work. In such cases, the Georgia workers’ compensation program offers a straightforward way for injured workers to obtain compensation for their injuries. In addition, approved applicants will also be provided with ongoing weekly benefits until they are able to return to work. In some cases, workers’ compensation benefits can continue for decades.

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Although Georgia workers are generally entitled to recover compensation from their employers for workplace injuries, whether independent contractors are entitled to Georgia workers’ compensation benefits can be tricky. In a recent case, a court considered whether an independent contractor was entitled to bring a premises liability claim against a homeowner after he was injured on the property.

RoofIn that case, the plaintiff was washing windows on a house when he fell off the roof of the defendant’s house. He brought a premises liability claim against the homeowner, arguing that loose rocks and sand on the roof caused him to fall and that they constituted a dangerous condition.

The trial court found that the plaintiff could not bring his claim because he was an independent contractor, and the plaintiff appealed. Under that state’s law, an independent contractor generally cannot sue the hirer of the contractor for injuries suffered in the workplace. However, an independent contractor can sue if the hirer exercises control over the work in a way that contributes to the injury, or if the hirer fails to warn the contractor of a concealed dangerous condition on the property. The plaintiff claimed that the hirer had a dangerous condition on the property, in part because he was forced to walk along a narrow ledge along the roof because piping and mechanical equipment were blocking a safer path. The homeowner provided video and photo evidence taken over three years after the incident that showed individuals walking around the equipment and along a safer path.

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