Injuries Resulting from Workplace Violence — When Are They Compensable?

We have all heard the grim news; a school in Parkland, a concert in Las Vegas, a nightclub in Orlando, a church in Charleston, a movie theater in Aurora.  The scenes have become far too common.  While we may think of the scenes of these places as serving a specific function, such as education, the location of each of these atrocities was also a workplace, making these acts a form of workplace violence.

 

While large-scale violent attacks grab the headlines, a Bureau of Justice Statistics Study found that 80 percent of workplace violence is non-life-threatening, verbal or physical assault.  http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/wv09pr.cfm.   The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines “workplace violence” broadly, as “violence or the threat of violence against workers”.  It can occur at, or outside, the workplace and can range from verbal threats and abuse to physical assault and homicide. However it manifests, workplace violence is a growing concern for employers and employees alike.  OSHA estimates some 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year.  https://www.osha.gov/OSHDoc/data_General_Facts-workplace-violence.pdf.  Co-worker altercations, domestic situations brought to the workplace, and customer retaliation are all situations falling under OSHA’s broad definition of workplace violence. All could lead to compensable workers’ compensation claims, significant injuries, including death, and the associated financial loss.   But not all incidents of workplace violence causing injury result in a compensable claim.

 

Under Colorado’s Workers’ Compensation Act, an injury must arise out of, and in the course and scope of, employment to be compensable.  An injury occurs “in the course of” employment when it takes place within the time and place limits of the employment relationship and during an activity connected to the employee’s job-related functions.  An injury “arises out of employment” when it has its origin in an employee’s work-related functions and is sufficiently related to those functions to be part of the employee’s employment contract.

 

The Colorado Supreme Court has determined injuries which result from workplace violence are divided into three categories of causation, some of which are compensable, some not. The first category is assaults that have an inherent connection to the employment because of “enforced contacts” which result from the duties of the job. This includes assaults originating in arguments over work performance, work equipment, delivery of a paycheck or termination from work.

 

The second category is assaults which result from a “neutral force”.  A “neutral force” is one that is neither particular to the claimant nor the employment. This type of assault has been analyzed under the “positional risk” or “but for” test and is applied to injuries which result from stray bullets, roving lunatics, drunks, assaults by mistake and completely unexplained attacks.

 

The third category is assaults which are the result of a private dispute which the parties import to the work place. (E.g., Claimants shot by a co-worker who believed that the claimants had made obscene calls to the co-worker’s spouse). This category has been expanded to include assaults where the victim was specifically chosen or targeted.

 

Injuries from workplace violence resulting from “enforced contacts”, specifically resulting from the claimant’s job duties are compensable. However, the issue of whether the assault resulted from the “duties of the job” requires a factual determination you may want to present to an Administrative Law Judge.  Assault injuries from a “neutral force”, such as a completely unexplained shooting, are also compensable. In such situations, the Courts consider whether, “but for” the conditions and obligations of employment, the claimant would have been injured.

 

In contrast, injuries caused by a work place assault which results from a private or personal dispute imported to the workplace are not compensable. Thus, where the assault has no inherent connection to employment activities, compensability of the claimant’s injuries depends on whether the claimant was specifically targeted for the assault.

 

When evaluating the compensability of workplace violence claims, the employer should also be mindful of the exclusivity provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act.  An employer that has complied with the Act is granted immunity from common-law actions for damages, such as pain and suffering, mental distress, loss of enjoyment of life, lost earning capacity, etc., and its employees are limited to the remedies specified in the Act.  If an employee’s injuries result from an assault that is inherently connected to the employment or is attributable to neutral sources that are not personal to the victim or perpetrator, those injuries arise out of the employment for the purposes of workers’ compensation and the employee is barred from bringing a tort claim against his or her employer. However, employee claims are not barred by the Workers’ Compensation exclusivity provisions if the assault originates in matters personal to one or both parties.

 

Have questions? Please contact any of the attorneys at Lee & Brown, LLC.

 

LEGISLATIVE UPDATE — FIRST RESPONDERS’ COVERAGE FOR PTSD

2017 saw more legislative action related to workers’ compensation than Colorado has seen for the past few years.  Three bills were introduced in the Colorado Legislature and all three passed.  One of the newly enacted bills, HB 17-1229, was enacted on June 5, 2017, with an effective date of July 1, 2018 (subject to exception)[1].  It amends section 8-41-301, C.R.S., relating to the conditions of recovery for claims of mental impairment.  Under the current law, an employee can file a “mental only” (i.e., there is no associated physical injury) claim only as a result of employment-related situations consisting of a “psychologically traumatic event that is generally outside of a worker’s usual experience and would evoke significant symptoms of distress in a worker in similar circumstances”.   The claimed mental impairment must be proven by the testimony of a licensed physician or psychologist.  Strict judicial interpretation of this statutory language resulted in the de facto disqualification of police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders from the receipt of mental impairment benefits for PTSD claims because violent and bloody incidents, including the deaths of others, were deemed to be within their “usual” work experience.   While it is true some of these professionals do encounter repeat exposure to horrific events as part of their typical work experience without impact, others struggle to secure the coverage and psychiatric care they need to help them deal with gruesome work situations, which might be “expected” in their occupation, but are still somewhat atypical.  Section 8-41-301, C.R.S., as amended, allows workers to claim workers’ compensation coverage for PTSD in a limited set of circumstances, based on repeated exposure to violent incidents.  It also retains the statute’s existing requirement that, outside the few exceptions that apply primarily to peace officers and first responders, mental impairment coverage is implicated only when an incident is outside a worker’s usual experience.  As before, a mental impairment shall not be considered to arise out of and in the course of employment if it results from a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, lay off, demotion, promotion, termination, retirement, or similar action taken in good faith by the employer. To qualify for mental impairment benefits under the amended statute, the worker must be diagnosed with PTSD by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist following exposure to one or more of the following events:

 

  • The worker is the subject of an attempt by another person to cause the worker serious bodily injury or death through the use of deadly force, and the worker reasonably believes the worker is the subject of the attempt;
  • The worker visually witnesses a death, or the immediate aftermath of the death, of one or more people as a result of a violent event; or
  • The worker repeatedly visually witnesses the serious bodily injury, or the immediate aftermath of the serious bodily injury, of one or more people as the result of the intentional act of another person or an accident.

 

These changes to the mental impairment statute achieve a balance that is fair to first responders, while maintaining appropriate limitations on coverage for others in nonviolent occupations, and protecting the interests of employers and insurers.  The act applies to injuries sustained on or after its effective date, July 1, 2018.

If you have questions about the recently enacted workers’ compensation legislation, or any questions about workers’ compensation, please contact Lee + Kinder LLC.

 

[1] This act takes effect July 1, 2018; except that, if a referendum petition is filed pursuant to the applicable state constitutional provision, then the act will not take effect unless approved by the people at the November 2018 general election.

A FIRST! FDA REQUESTS WITHDRAWAL OF OPANA® ER FROM THE MARKET; MANUFACTURER ACQUIESCES

Amid the nation’s ongoing and “unprecedented opioid epidemic”, (per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), on June 8, 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requested Endo Pharmaceuticals to voluntarily remove its opioid pain medication, reformulated Opana ER (oxymorphone hydrochloride), from the market. The request was based on concerns that the benefits of the drug no longer outweigh its risks related to abuse. This is the first time the FDA has taken steps to remove a currently marketed opioid pain medication due to the public health consequence of abuse.

Opana ER is an opioid first approved in 2006 for the treatment of moderate to severe pain when a continuous, around-the-clock opioid analgesic is deemed necessary. In 2012, Opana ER was reformulated to deter snorting and injecting. While the new product met the FDA’s standards for approval, based on new information about the risks associated with the reformulated product, the agency is now taking steps to remove Opana ER from the market.

Janet Woodcock, M.D., Director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, indicated, “The abuse and manipulation of reformulated Opana ER by injection has resulted in serious disease outbreak. When we determined the product had dangerous unintended consequences, we made a decision to request its withdrawal from the market. This action will protect the public from further potential misuse and abuse of this product.”

The FDA requested the manufacturer, Endo International, voluntarily remove reformulated Opana ER from the market. In another first, Endo has announced its plan to voluntarily comply with the FDA’s request. In a July 6, 2017 press release, Endo announced plans to work with the FDA to coordinate the orderly removal of the pain medication, “in a manner that looks to minimize treatment disruption and allows patients sufficient time to seek guidance from the health care professionals.”

The FDA has indicated it will continue to examine the risk-benefit profile of all approved opioid analgesic products and take further actions as appropriate as part of its response to the opioid public health crisis. For further information, read the FDA News Release.

 

What can you do to help manage the chronic prescription of opioids or narcotics on your claims?

• Obtain an independent medical evaluation if:
1. Opioids are prescribed for complaints of pain and there are inconsistencies in the diagnosis and objective findings;
2. There is no reported reduction in pain levels with ongoing prescription of opioids or narcotics;
3. There is no demonstrable improvement in function, including return to work, with ongoing prescription of opioids or narcotics;
4. Abuse, addiction, or deviation is suspected.

 

• Colorado’s Medical Treatment Guidelines address the appropriate use of Narcotics/Opioids in workers’ compensation claims including the following recommendations:
1. Screening for potential alcohol and drug abuse problems, as well as co-morbid psychiatric conditions, to identify those claimants who may be prone to dependence or abuse;
2. Long-term narcotics or opioids should only be offered after other therapies have failed to improve function;
3. Narcotics or opioids should result in demonstrable improvements in function, not just reported pain relief;
4. Random urine drug screens are required by the Guidelines for the chronic prescription of opioids or narcotics;
5. A narcotic pain contract, and compliance therewith, is required by the Guidelines for long term prescription of opioids or narcotics;
6. Periodic re-evaluation of function and side-effects is required for ongoing narcotic or opioid prescriptions;
7. Tapering and discontinuance of opioid or narcotic prescriptions are required when patient goals are not being met.

 

• Medical Utilization Review:
Provides a statutory, tiered, neutral medical review of the reasonableness and necessity of an authorized treating provider’s care, including the prescription of narcotic and opioid medications.
If you have any questions about challenging the ongoing prescription of narcotics or opioid pain medications, or any claim-related medical treatment, please contact any of the attorneys at LEE + KINDER, LLC. We are always glad to discuss the facts of your case and work towards the most efficient way to end unreasonable, unnecessary, and/or unrelated medical treatment.

EMPLOYEE OR INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR?

Why is it important to know if the person working for you is an employee or an independent contractor?  Because the answer determines if he or she must be covered by your workers’ compensation insurance policy. An incorrect guess exposes you to substantial penalties under Colorado’s Workers’ Compensation Act.employeeVSic

 

A worker’s status as an “employee” versus an “independent contractor” has been one of the most heavily litigated areas of workers’ compensation since the enactment of Colorado’s Workers’ Compensation Act in 1915.  Fortunately, after decades of appellate decisions addressing the independent contractor versus employee issue, in 1993, the General Assembly enacted section 8-40-202(2), C.R.S.  According to section 8-40-202(2), C.R.S., anyone performing work for you is an employee, unless such individual is:

 

  • Free from control and direction in the performance of the service, and
  • Customarily engaged in an independent trade, occupation, profession, or business related to the service performed.

 

The statute sets forth nine factors which give rise to a presumption that a worker is an independent contractor as opposed to an employee.  The statute contains various factors the courts will consider in determining whether a worker is, based on the totality of the circumstances, “engaged in an independent trade, occupation, profession or business”.  For example, if the worker has a separate business name, carries his or her own business insurance, has business cards, carries workers’ compensation insurance on any employees, is paid at a contracted rate, submits invoices for the work being performed, with payments being made to the named business, is performing services for other companies at the same time he or she is working for you, the facts suggest the worker is independent and you may not be required to cover him or her under your workers’ compensation policy.

 

The statute also requires the worker to be “free from control and direction in the performance of their services”.  If the worker provides their own tools and necessary supplies, performs the services being contracted on their own schedule, exercises independent judgment in performing the services and how they choose to perform them, again these facts suggest the worker is free from control and independent.  Unfortunately, the courts have repeatedly held there is no single dispositive factor, or series of factors, resulting in proof of an employer-employee relationship or independent contractor status under section 8-40-202(2), C.R.S.

 

The statute does provide for the use of a document to satisfy its requirements by a preponderance of the evidence.  If the parties use a written document to establish an independent contractor relationship, it must be signed by both parties and contain a disclosure, in type which is larger than the other provisions in the document or in bold-faced or underlined type, that the independent contractor is not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits and is obligated to pay federal and state income tax on any moneys earned pursuant to the contract relationship.  All signatures on the document must be notarized.  Such a document creates only a rebuttable presumption of an independent contractor relationship between the parties.

 

Still confused or unsure?  Please call Lee + Kinder LLC to discuss the facts of your situation.

OSHA Injury and Illness Reporting Requirements

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires many employers with ten or oshalogomore employees to keep a record of serious work related injuries and illnesses (certain low risk industries are exempted).  Employers must report any worker fatality within 8 hours and any amputation, loss of an eye, or hospitalization of any worker within 24 hours.  Minor injuries requiring only first aid do not need to be recorded.   This information helps employers, workers and OSHA evaluate the safety of a workplace, understand workplace hazards and prevent future workplace injuries and illnesses.

OSHA recently announced it is expanding its “Injury and Illness Record-keeping Rule” to encourage greater transparency of employer injury and illness data.  Starting in 2017, the Rule will also require some employers to disclose occupational injury and illness information to OSHA electronically.  Some of the electronically submitted data will then be posted to OSHA’s website.  OSHA believes that this public disclosure of employer information will “nudge” employers to improve workplace safety and provide valuable information to workers, job seekers, customers, researchers and the general public.  The amount of data submitted and publically posted will vary depending on the size of the company and the type of the industry.

The expanded Rule prohibits employers from “discouraging” workers from reporting an injury or illness.  The final Rule requires employers to inform employees of their right to report work-related injuries and illnesses free from retaliation; implement procedures for reporting injuries and illnesses that are reasonable and do not deter workers from reporting; and incorporate the existing statutory prohibition on retaliating against workers for reporting injuries and illnesses.   Originally slated to take effect August 10, 2016, OSHA is delaying enforcement of the anti-retaliation provisions in its new Injury and Illness Record-keeping Rule to provide education and outreach to employers.  Enforcement of the anti-retaliation provisions of the Rule will now begin November 1, 2016 and the record-keeping rule takes effect on January 1, 2017.

You might feel confident that your workplace is already in compliance with the “anti-retaliation” provisions of OSHA’s Injury and Illness Recordkeeping Rule.  You may even be asking yourself, “How is this a change in the law?  Isn’t it already against the law to retaliate against an employee for reporting a workplace injury or illness?”  While section 11(c) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act prohibits any person from discharging or discriminating against an employee for reporting an injury, illness or fatality, OSHA may not act under that section unless the employee files a complaint within 30 days of the retaliation.  OSHA believes the new Rule is vital as it gives OSHA the “ability to protect workers who have been subject to retaliation, even when they cannot speak up for themselves”. Further, the issues under the expanded rule are more complicated than they first appear. You could be inadvertently violating provisions of the rule and unexpectedly land yourself in hot water with OSHA.

Here are some common workplace safety policies that could result in violations of OSHA’s new anti-retaliation provisions:

  1. Mandatory post-accident drug testing programs: The OSHA rule specifically recommends against “blanket post-injury” drug testing policies. However, OSHA also specifically indicates the rule does not prohibit post-injury drug testing of employees.  It only prohibits employers from using drug testing, or the threat of drug testing, as a form of retaliation against employees who report injuries or illnesses.  That being said, in connection with the rule, OSHA stated, “OSHA believes the evidence in the rulemaking record shows that blanket post-injury drug testing policies deter proper reporting.”  Therefore, OSHA’s position on blanket post-injury drug testing appears to be equivocal and leaves employers without clear direction.  OSHA’s recommendation against blanket post-injury drug testing may prove particularly problematic, given that Colorado’s Worker’s Compensation Act clearly contemplates post-accident drug and alcohol screening in light of C.R.S. sections 8-42-112, (“safety rule violation”), 8-42-112.5, (the “intoxication defense”), 8-42-103(1)(g) and 8-42-105(4)(a), (the “termination statutes”).  For employers with “zero tolerance” policies, a positive post-accident drug or alcohol test could result in the termination of an injured employee’s employment, reducing their temporary indemnity benefits to zero.  If the employer proves either an intoxication defense or safety rule violation, the injured employee’s indemnity benefits, temporary and permanent, would be reduced by 50 percent.  While these concerns may not directly impact the course of worker’s compensation litigation, they could give rise to employment litigation outside the workers’ compensation system, particularly in light of OSHA’s independent ability to raise the retaliation issue under the expanded rule, without the need for the worker to file a complaint.

 

  1. Providing incentives exclusively to employees that have not been involved in workplace incidents or accidents: While OSHA indicates the rule does not prohibit incentive programs, it does state employers must not create incentive programs that deter or discourage an employee from reporting an injury or illness. For example, if you are trying to minimize injury by providing cash bonuses, paid time-off, employer-sponsored parties, or other compensation, for a certain number of “injury-free” days, or “no lost time”, you could be in violation of the rule. Unfortunately, OSHA’s alternative direction is vague at best.    OSHA recommends incentive programs that “encourage safe work practices” and “promote safety-related activities”.

 

  1. If injured, off-work employees are excluded from workplace events, which could be considered a benefit of employment, such as luncheons, parties, football pools, birthday celebrations, or other work-related events or functions.

OSHA’s new Injury or Illness and Record-keeping Rule is complicated and could result in a quagmire of retaliation and perceived retaliation claims.  Your current safety policy and procedures should be reviewed for compliance with the expanded rule.  If you have questions about the rule, or whether your policies are in compliance, please contact us.