Alligators, Burritos and Bears – Oh My!

Having litigated several “assault” cases, nothing ceases to amaze this author more than the vast number of unfortunate ways people find themselves in the most bizarre and unforeseeable situations. Courts across the United States adjudicating assault-based cases in the workers’ compensation context are faced with determining whether the events leading to the assault arose out of an injured workers’ employment or whether the event was purely personal in nature. Here are some of the more inexplicable events that could give rise to a claim — you decide whether these claims would be compensable.

 

In 2007, an individual was feeding a bear at the Great Bear Adventure in northern Montana. It was undisputed that the individual had smoked pot prior to entering the bear cage with food. The manager of the park had told the individual not to feed the bear as the food was being tapered due to hibernation. When the individual entered the enclosure, he was mauled by the bear.  Although the employer argued that the individual was outside the scope of the employment, the Montana appellate court found that the bear was “an equal opportunity mauler” who attacked regardless of the marijuana use. As noted by the decision, the use of drugs (which the court admonished at best) had no bearing on the actual animal attack.

 

More traumatically, in August 2018, police were called to a construction scene in Wisconsin. The police discovered that a co-worker allegedly attacked and killed another co-worker with a circular saw. The co-worker was arrested at the scene. A subsequent investigation documented that the co-worker assailant had told other crew members during the day of the attack that other crew members were teasing him about a one-night stand he had had the evening before.  The legal question, other than the criminal liability of the assailant, is whether the decedent’s estate/dependents would be entitled to workers’ compensation death benefits? Was the attack work related, or did it arise out of a direct personal dispute between the assailant and decedent? Based upon the facts of this case, you be the judge.

 

Although the case above could be on the border of compensability depending on the facts, a more clear-cut assault occurred in January 2018 in South Carolina. During that event, the manager of a fast food restaurant got into a heated verbal altercation with an employee over shift scheduling. When the manager told the employee to “stop being a crybaby,” the employee wrapped up the argument by throwing a hot, “loaded burrito” at the manager. According to the manager, melted cheese stuck onto the manager’s left side and leg. Apparently, the manager recovered from the hot cheese injuries, but could a mental impairment injury also be included in this type of event?

 

Finally, imagine yourself working as a fast food drive through employee. It’s a typical day of serving food and drinks, handing the items to customers through an open window. Now imagine serving a soft-drink, and, while the window is open, the customer throws a three-and-a-half-foot alligator through the window at you. In 2016, that is exactly what happened to a fast food employee in Florida. The customer was later apprehended and claimed that he threw the alligator into the restaurant as a funny prank. While it is unclear whether the employee sustained any physical injuries, the assault by semi-aquatic reptile exemplifies what a neutral force assault is in terms of workers’ compensation liability for injuries arising out of employment.

 

The above cases raise unique issues concerning assaults, whether by an animal, a co-employee, or a random person who just happened to pick up an alligator from the side of the road prior to getting lunch, that can be tricky and fact dependent.  When you need help untangling the facts and details surrounding a claim, please contact one of the attorneys at Lee & Brown.

Workplace Bullying

Does workers’ compensation insurance cover mental, and manifesting physical injuries Workplace Bullyingresulting from workplace bullying? A recent Forbes online article cited a survey concluding that 75% of the U.S. workforce reported having experienced workplace bullying.[1] Another study cited by the Workplace Bullying Institute suggested that absenteeism and lower production costs businesses $4 billion annually.[2] Regardless of the accuracy of the statistics, with the increased use of social media, workplace bullying can start inside of the workplace, or, start outside of the workplace and permeate into daily business operations.

One definition of workplace bullying advanced in Psychology Today was “workplace bullying refers to “situations where an employee repeatedly and over a prolonged time period is exposed to harassing behavior from one or more colleagues (including subordinates and leaders) and where the targeted person is unable to defend him-/herself against this systematic mistreatment.”[3] Researches have identified both internal and external causes of workplace bullying. As noted below, identifying the cause of workplace bullying is relevant to unwinding the legal liabilities associated with resulting injuries. Types of injuries associated with this behavior includes “physical and psychological symptoms, including headaches, chronic neck pain, fibromyalgia, type 2 diabetes, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms, suicidal ideation, and others.” [4]

The current statutory law in Colorado does not specifically address a company’s insurance liability for workplace bullying injuries. However, those injuries can be covered under the exclusive remedy of the Colorado’s Workers’ Compensation Act and the associated insurance policies. Bullying injuries may be treated as assaults for purposes of liability. Assaults that arise out of work are generally compensable injuries, while those that are purely personal are not.[5] Assaults caused by a natural force, or an event that any employee would be exposed to are also compensable assaults. Before addressing the nature of the injury, the business should investigate whether the bullying, for example verbal abuse or written harassments, arose out of a personal dispute between employees or whether the bullying occurred within the parameters of the employees’ business relations. Any investigation should be undertaken consistent with a business’ employment policies and procedures for interviewing witnesses, reviewing internal documents such as email, and confiscating company phones or computers as evidence.

When a business determines that a workplace bullying event has occurred, the business ought to determine whether an actual injury was caused by the perpetrator(s) conduct. The law is especially tricky when unpacking whether an injury occurred. While an employee may complain of stress or some other symptoms, especially to justify absenteeism, the claim may not always be a compensable injury. Section 8-43-301(2)(a), C.R.S., requires that an employee claiming a mental impairment provide a specific showing of a mental injury, including evidence supported by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. Additionally, whether the bullying itself was a crime of violence will also factor into the amount of benefits that could be owed to a victim-employee. Navigating through the patchwork of questions to determine liability hinges on the ability of a comprehensive investigation of the claim at the outset to determine its validity.

As always, if you have any questions regarding workers’ compensation insurance and laws, please contact one of the attorneys at Lee & Brown, LLC.

 

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2016/08/27/the-enormous-toll-workplace-bullying-takes-on-your-bottom-line/#5f464c0b5595

[2] https://www.workplacebullying.org/tag/workers-comp/

[3]https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/finding-new-home/201809/workplace-bullying-causes-effects-and-prevention

[4] Id.

[5] Velasquez v. Industrial Commission, 41 Colo. App. 201,581 P.2d 748 (1978); In Re Questions Submitted by U.S. Court of Appeals, 759 P.2d 17, 23 (Colo. 1988).

The Cross Contamination between Workers’ Compensation and OSHA: Considerations for Handling Blood-Borne Pathogen Claims in Colorado and Arizona.

Exposure to blood-borne pathogens presents unique risks in the work place. Workers in health care or in-resident home care are, on a daily basis, subject to the potential of disease transmitted by bodily fluids. These diseases range from methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), spinal meningitis, tuberculosis, hepatitis, to HIV. Given the Sharps Containerubiquitous daily potential for exposures to workers across the board, including direct patient care workers to maintenance workers to transport personnel, risk managers and adjusters need to understand the overlap with workers compensation and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (“OSHA”) rules. Understanding exposure and needlestick law is critical to containing risks as well as protecting employees from life-altering danger. [1]

 

The OSHA rules pertaining to disease transmitted though bodily fluids are found on the public domain at: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/bloodbornepathogens/gen_guidance.html. The federal regulations governing OSHA’s rules and role is found at 29 CFR 1910.1030. OSHA laws, since 2002, also conform to the federal Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act (NSPA) of 2000.[2] Congress in large part delegated the enforcement of the NSPA to OSHA. In turn, OSHA rules require employers evaluate controlled safety programs to keep employees safe from potential exposures and to implement engineering controls to effectuate any respective safety plan. The NSPA requires that “Requires certain employers to: (1) review and update exposure control plans to reflect changes in technology that eliminate or reduce such exposure, and document their consideration and implementation of appropriate commercially available and effective safer medical devices for such purpose; (2) maintain a sharps injury log, noting the type and brand of device used, where the injury occurred, and an explanation of the incident (exempting employers who are not required to maintain specified OSHA logs); and (3) seek input on such engineering and work practice controls from the affected health care workers (exempting employers who are not required to establish exposure control plans).”[3]  The federal NSPA and OSHA law do not alter the scope of workers compensation liability insurance coverage or impose additional coverage requirements upon employers. However, OSHA regulations do require the employer of an exposed employee set up an immediate confidential medical evaluation. Under OSHA standards, the evaluation: “This evaluation and follow-up must be: made available at no cost to the worker and at a reasonable time and place; performed by or under the supervision of a licensed physician or other licensed healthcare professional; and provided according to the recommendations of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) current at the time the procedures take place. In addition, laboratory tests must be conducted by an accredited laboratory and also must be at no cost to the worker. A worker who participates in post-exposure evaluation and follow-up may consent to have his or her blood drawn for determination of a baseline infection status but has the option to withhold consent for HIV testing at that time. In this instance, the employer must ensure that the worker’s blood sample is preserved for at least 90 days in case the worker changes his or her mind about HIV testing.”[4] The employee has recourse under OSHA regardless of state workers compensation laws and coverage to have the employer pay for lab tests and blood analysis to determine the presence of blood-borne illnesses.

 

One interesting aspect of the OSHA regulations deals with the employer-employment relationship of a physician using a health care facility under a contract for staff privileges.  Surgeons, for example, may have staff privileges at a hospital to perform surgeries they otherwise could not do in their office. According to OSHA’s interpretation of its own rules, “Under OSHA’s blood-borne pathogens compliance directive (OSHA Instruction CPL 02-02-069 [formerly CPL 2-2.69]) the status of the physician as an employer or employee is important to establish in order to determine the application of OSHA standards. According to the paragraph XI.D. in the directive, physicians “… may be cited if they create or control blood-borne pathogens hazards that expose employees at hospitals or other sites where they have staff privileges in accordance with the multi-employer worksite guidelines of CPL 02-00-124 [formerly CPL 2-0.124], Multi-Employer Citation Policy.”[5] In terms of needlestick or exposure cases in both Colorado and Arizona, an employer/carrier should always assess the corresponding contracts (or independent contractor status) to determine whether a what (or whose) particular workers compensation insurance policy applies in these situations.

 

Arizona has passed specific legislation pertaining to exposure risks. Section 23-1043.04, A.R.S., specifically deals with MRSA, spinal meningitis, and tuberculous exposures. Mere exposure to a needlestick is not an automatic claim for compensation. The workers must first file a claim with the ICA. The statute then requires, to sustain a claim: (1) The employee’s regular course of employment involves handling of or exposure to methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, spinal meningitis or tuberculosis; (2) Within thirty calendar days after a possible significant exposure that arises out of and in the course of employment, the employee reports in writing to the employer the details of the exposure. The employer shall notify its insurance carrier or claims processor of the report. Failure of the employer to notify the insurance carrier is not a defense to a claim by the employee; (3) For a claim involving methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, the employee must be diagnosed with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus within fifteen days after the employee reports pursuant to paragraph 2 of this subsection. (4) For a claim involving spinal meningitis, the employee is diagnosed with spinal meningitis within two to eighteen days of the possible significant exposure; (5) For a claim involving tuberculosis, the employee is diagnosed with tuberculosis within twelve weeks of the possible significant exposure.

 

What is also of interest for employers is that the respective Arizona statue contains protects the medical information of third parties. In the course of an exposure case, an employer may allege that a sexual partner or perhaps drug use caused the alleged condition. Under A.R.S. 23-1043.04(D) “a person alleged to be a source of a significant exposure shall not be compelled by subpoena or other court order to release confidential information relating to methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, spinal meningitis or tuberculosis either by document or by oral testimony. Evidence of the alleged source’s methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, spinal meningitis or tuberculosis status may be introduced by either party if the alleged source knowingly and willingly consents to the release of that information.” Proving an alternative source of the exposure may be challenging without court intervention.

 

The statutory provisions pertaining to HIV is found in section 23-1043.2, and the provisions pertaining to Hepatitis C is found in 23-1043.3. Each respective section has reporting requirements similar to 23-1043.3, and contain the same provision barring compelled blood tests of third parties. Additionally, an employee may file a notice with the Industrial Commission reporting a significant exposure to blood-borne illness.[6] The worker must also file a separate claim, for which the employer/carrier may then respond by operation of a Notice of Claim Status.

 

Colorado does not have specific statutory provisions concerning blood-borne illness exposures. The Colorado exposure analysis is traditionally done in the general rubric of whether an event caused an injury in the course of employment, and that the injury arose out of employment.[7] It is the claimant’s legal burden to prove a causal nexus with work.[8] In other words, whether a needlestick caused an injury requiring medical treatment to cure or relieve the effects of the respective industrial injury. If you have a needle stick or blood-borne illness exposure issue, please contact an attorney at Lee and Brown of specific guidance on these complex issues.

 

[1] For example, see the story of one health care worker exposed to a needle stick. https://www.nursingworld.org/practice-policy/work-environment/health-safety/safe-needles/safe-needles-law/

[2] https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-106publ430/html/PLAW-106publ430.htm

[3] https://www.congress.gov/bill/106th-congress/house-bill/5178

[4] https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_BloodborneFacts/bbfact04.pdf

[5] https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/2003-02-20

[6] https://www.azica.gov/claims-significant-work-exposure

[7] C.R.S. section 8-41-301

[8] See. e.g., Manzanares v. Quality Uniform Linen Supply & Liberty Mutual WC #4-268-197 (ICAO 1999)

Settlement Procedures in Workers’ Compensation

Member Joseph Gren co-authored an article for the Colorado Lawyer, July 2017 edition. The article, Settlement Procedures in Workers’ Compensation, is an in-depth explanation of the unique procedural requirements governing settlement of Colorado Workers’ Compensation Claims.

The Colorado Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act) has permitted settlement of workers’ compensation claims since at least 1919. As in civil cases, the Act and accompanying Division of Workers’ Compensation (DOWC or Division) rules permit both represented and pro se parties to settle workers’ compensation claims, though there are procedural safeguards unique to the workers’ compensation system. Similar to legal matters outside of the workers’ compensation context, settlement is often an attractive resolution for parties, as settlement can expedite finality and reduce overall risk and exposure. Legal authority for settlement of workers’ compensation claims lies in statute, case law, and the Workers’ Compensation Rules of Procedure (WCRP). DOWC recently amended and renumbered the procedural rules related to settlement effective April 15, 2016, and September 14, 2016.

This article provides a practical overview of the settlement procedure for Colorado workers’ compensation claims and highlights recent changes to administrative rules.

Click this link, or the link in the article name, to read the full article. A new tab will open with the PDF.

AMA Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment, Third Edition, Revised: What Are You Doing Colorado?

One of the questions I hear frequently about the Colorado workers’ compensation system from risk managers,AMAguides3rd insurance adjusters, and even some medical professionals is: “Why does Colorado still use the AMA Guides Third Edition, Revised, when calculating impairment?” In other words, why do Division Level II accredited physicians providing impairment ratings to injured workers use the AMA Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment, Third Edition, Revised (December 1990)? As of 2002, Colorado was, and still is, the only jurisdiction to use the Third Edition in the workers’ compensation system.[1]

The Third Revised Edition’s history in the Colorado workers’ compensation system is simple. The Colorado Workers’ Compensation Act underwent an extensive remodel in 1991. In the 1991 Amendments to the Act, the legislature inserted in section 8-42-107(A)(c), C.R.S., the methods to calculate impairment. In order to establish the medical impairment value for purposes of a permanent partial disability award, the legislature adopted the Third Edition, Revised (December 1990), which, at the time, was state of the art.  Since 1991, the legislature has not altered the statutory language.

The State of Colorado has arguably been cognizant of the fact it is the only state in the nation to hold onto this antiquated edition. In fact, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment commissioned a study in 2002, concluding that “spinal impairment evaluations are the most frequent type of evaluations performed.”[2] The study stated that, amongst the guides, there are significant differences in spinal impairment. The author pointed out “the impairment estimate for a spinal injury may be quite different depending on which edition is used to rate the condition.” The author concluded “Values were significantly less with both the Fourth and Fifth Editions, although more dramatically with the Fourth Edition.” The study pointed to different range of motion calculations between the guides to explain the discrepancy.

Per its own commissioned study that the use of the Third Edition Revised results in higher impairment ratings, and, therefore, higher permanent partial disability awards, Colorado has held strong to the Third Revised Edition.  In 2007 the AMA Guides Sixth Edition was published. The more recent studies show a decrease in impairment ratings with the Sixth Edition when compared to ratings under the Fifth Edition.[3] The State of Colorado utilizes the medical impairment rating system that on average provides the highest degree of impairment, including spinal impairments, to injured workers. It does not appear that there is any legislative progress to bring Colorado into alignment with any other state anytime soon.  Which begs the final question: Colorado, what are you doing?

________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Study of the Impact on Changing from the American Medical Association (AMA) Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment, Third Edition Revised to the Fourth or Fifth Editions in Determining Workers’ Compensation Impairment Ratings, Christopher Brigham, M.D. (June 30, 2002).

[2] Id. 58.

[3] Impact on Impairment Ratings from the American Medical Association’s Sixth Edition of the Guides to the Evaluation of Permanent Impairment, Robert Moss, et. al. (July 2012) at 25.

Division Rule 16: Increasing the Complexity of Utilization Preauthorization Disputes

On January 1, 2017, the Colorado Division of Workers’ Compensation’s revised Rule 16 will CDLE-Logotake effect. Rule 16 encompasses the medical, legal, and administrative standards for medical billing and for preauthorization of services requested by medical providers. The revised rule impacts the daily adjusting of workers’ compensation claims, specifically, responding to requests for preauthorization of medical services consistent with the Colorado Medical Treatment Guidelines (“MTG”). The critical alterations pertaining to the utilization review process impute additional legal obligations upon the insurance carrier or third party administrator (“TPA”) to take action after receiving a preauthorization request.

 

The most significant addition to Rule 16 was the incorporation of the “Notification” provision found in Rule 16-9. The Notification process was the Division’s response to concerns about expediting medical services to injured workers while guaranteeing that the medical providers would receive payment without a prior promise of payment from the insurance carrier or TPA. Rule 16-9(A) states “[t]he Notification process is for treatment consistent with the Medical Treatment Guidelines that has an established value under the Medical Fee Schedule. Providers may, but are not required to, utilize the Notification process to ensure payment for medical treatment that falls within the purview of the Medical Treatment Guidelines. Therefore, lack of response from the payer within the time requirement set forth in section 16-9 (D) shall deem the proposed treatment/service authorized for payment.”

 

The language contained in Rule 16-9(B) emphasizes that a medical provider “may” obtain permission to provide a service within the Medical Treatment Guidelines verbally within normal business hours.  The providers can obtain verbal confirmation and may make a request for written confirmation regarding payment of those services. If the provider wishes, the provider can submit a written Notification to the claim examiner. The provider must use the boilerplate Division form WC195, which is available online at the Division’s website. The provider must include on the form a statement as to why the service is medically necessary and cite the applicable MTG.

 

After the carrier or TPA receives the Notification, the respective recipient has 5 business days from the receipt of the Notification to respond to the provider. The timing for the response to the provider differs from the current structure of Rule 16 whereby the carrier is permitted 7 business days from the date of the request to respond to the request for authorization. If the carrier or TPA does not respond to a verbal or written request in 5 business days, the requested service is deemed automatically authorized for payment.

 

The carrier or TPA may either accept or deny the request for services. Similar to the current Rule 16 structure, the carrier or TPA always reserves the right to agree to pay for the requested services without a formal review of the requested services. The carrier or TPA can alternatively contest the services on the following grounds: “(1) for claims which have been reported to the Division, no admission of liability or final order finding the injury compensable has been issued; (2) proposed treatment is not related to the admitted injury; (3) provider submitting Notification is not an Authorized Treating Provider (ATP), or is proposing for treatment to be performed by a provider who is not eligible to be an ATP; (4) injured worker is not entitled to proposed treatment pursuant to statute or settlement;  (5) medical records contain conflicting opinions among the ATPs regarding proposed treatment; and (6) proposed treatment falls outside the Medical Treatment Guidelines (see section 16-9(E).”

 

If the carrier or TPA contests the Notification on the grounds that the treatment is not related to the industrial injury, the medical records contain conflicting opinions, or that the treatment falls outside of the MTG, the carrier or TPA must notify the provider. The carrier or TPA must then allow the provider to submit supporting documentation to justify the relatedness of the service. If the provider submits the requested supporting documentation, then the carrier or TPA must review the request consistent with the Rule 16-10 and 16-11 preauthorization rules within 7 business days. A party contesting the denial of a Notification request may file an Application for Hearing.

 

The Division inserted a penalties provision in Rule 16-9(G). Under this new rule, if any medical provider or payer, the carrier or TPA, misapply the Medical Treatment Guidelines in the Notification process, the respective party may be subject to penalties. This provision continues the Colorado state government’s history of advocating punitive sanctions for violations of administrative rules.

 

In addition to the Notification provision, the Division altered the rules pertinent to traditional utilization review contests for medical services outside of the MTG.  The utilization standards contained in Rule 16-10 largely remained unchanged by the new rule. The modification to Rule 16-11, however, focused upon remodeling the carrier’s and TPA’s right to contest the request for authorization.  Prior to January 1, 2017, in order to contest the request for preauthorization for services, the carrier or TPA had 7 business days to obtain a medical review or file an Application for Hearing to challenge the request. After January 1, 2017, the carrier or TPA must follow a different procedure to contest preauthorization, presuming that medical providers perfect their request for authorization.

 

Under the new Rule 16-11(E): “[f]ailure of the payer to timely comply in full with the requirements of section 16-11(A) or (B), shall be deemed authorization for payment of the requested treatment unless: (1) a hearing is requested within the time prescribed for responding as set forth in section 16-11(A) or (B) and the requesting provider is notified accordingly. A request for hearing shall not relieve the payer from conducting a medical review of the requested treatment, as set forth in section 16-11(B); or (2) the payer has scheduled an independent medical examination (IME) within the time prescribed for responding as set forth in section 16-11(B).” In short, filing an Application for Hearing by itself is no longer sufficient to contest the preauthorization request. If the carrier or TPA requests a hearing, the carrier or TPA must complete the medical review process within seven business days or actually schedule the injured worker for an Independent Medical Evaluation (“IME”) within seven business days.

 

The new Notification process for medical services, consistent with the MTG and the limitations on contesting a requests for preauthorization for services outside of the guidelines, raises numerous questions on how the rules will practically operate. For instance, does a verbal Notification for a service within the MTG left on a claims examiner’s voicemail meet the criteria for Rule 16-9(B)? Does an injured worker have legal standing to request penalties under Rule 16-9 if a medical provider misapplies the MTG in a request thereby causing a delay in medical treatment? If a carrier or TPA files an Application for Hearing and schedules an IME, and the IME is later cancelled for various reasons, is the requested service automatically authorized? Given the historical litigation surrounding Rule 16 utilization reviews, carriers and TPAs should begin implementing safeguards and training to ensure strict compliance with the complex additions to the modified rule.

A Painful Step in Addressing the Opioid Epidemic: An Overview of the 2016 CDC Guidelines

The growing epidemic of chronic opioid use and addiction, and its consequences, permeates theopiod American medical and legal landscape.  Since the spike in the use of ubiquitous pain medications in the late 1990s, there has been little actual oversight in the health care industry to regulate the prescription of these highly addicting drugs.  In March 2016, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released new guidelines concerning opioid pain prescriptions. The guidelines have caused some backlash from physicians, who believe the government is now overreaching into the patient-physician relationship, and shifting from its historical role of approving the use of opioids at the regulatory level. Aside from the finger pointing amongst stakeholders in the health care industry, from the government, to big pharma, to the physicians who continue to administer, to the legal system, the fact is there is plenty of blame to go around for the cause of the epidemic. The response to the guidelines reflects the fundamental agreement that more oversight and education is needed at all levels.  The CDC’s new guidelines are a broadened approach with the goal of addressing the epidemic from the top down.

 

The authors of the guidelines, which were an amalgam of health care professionals, cited a jaw dropping statistic. In 2012, health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid medications. That is one prescription for every adult in the U.S. The increase in prescriptions were found in the areas of family practice, general practice, and internal medicine. From 1999 through 2014, more than 165,000 people died from opioid related deaths in the U.S. The authors pointed out that contemporary studies evidenced that opioids have adverse long term affects including significant physical impairment and distress. The authors stated that, “this disorder is manifested by specific criteria such as an unsuccessful effort to cut down or control use resulting in social problems and a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work, school, or home.” In other words, continued prescription of opioid medications can be a contributing factor in an injured worker not returning to the work place.

 

The substance of the CDC guidelines can be broken into three general categories:

(1) when to start or continue administration of opioids for chronic pain symptoms;

(2) how practitioners should select a particular drug, the dosage, and when to discontinue that specific dosage; and

(3) how to mitigate the potential for addiction from start to finish.

The guidelines are not intended to apply for cancer and end-of-life palliative care. Rather, the guidelines are intended to apply to primary providers, including those who work in out-patient clinical settings.

 

The guidelines emphasize the benefits of non-opioid treatments. For lower back pain, exercise therapy and non-steroid anti-inflammatories are recommended. As an alternative to opioids, cognitive behavioral therapy is recommended to mitigate disability and catastrophic thinking. If, and when, opioids are utilized in a treatment program, the physician should continue prescriptions if “meaningful improvement” in pain and function outweighs the risk of continued use. The guidelines recommend that the patients demonstrate a 30% improvement in pain scores and function to justify continued opioid use. In other words, opioids must be used as a method to improve function rather than as a “band-aid” approach to sustain the status-quo condition.

 

During the continuation process, the physician should actively manage the patient’s case by reviewing any history of controlled substances and utilize their state’s prescription drug monitoring program periodically, while performing, at a minimum, annual urine tests. In Colorado, for example, the Workers’ Compensation Medical Treatment Guidelines (MTG), Rule 17 Exhibit 9, have independent criteria for treating chronic pain in workers’ compensation case. The MTG emphasizes similar recommendations for active case management, including urine screens.  Additionally, the Department of Regulatory Agencies, in connection with several state medical boards, released an “Open Letter to the General Public on the Quad-Regulator Joint Policy for Prescribing and Dispensing Opioids” on October 15, 2014. While the policy does not draw a bright line rule of managing opioid cases in Colorado, the letter does outline the boards’ recognition that “decreasing opioid misuse and abuse in Colorado should be addressed by collaborative and constructive policies aimed at improving the prescriber education and practice, decreasing diversion, and establishing the same guidelines for all opioid prescribers and dispensers.”  The board also emphasized documenting improved functions, the use of the PDMP (Prescription Drug Monitoring Program), and random drug screening based upon the provider’s clinical judgment.

 

The CDC guidelines are important to workers’ compensation treatment and claims. The guidelines suggest that long term opioid use can be counterproductive in workers’ compensation. How these guidelines will be used by workers’ compensation physicians, in order to return injured workers’ back to work, has yet to be known. But the guidelines can be used in an effort to mitigate risk for future exposure in the litigation process. From a legal perspective, the guidelines, though not binding on any physician, are a peer reviewed document by both experts in the field and industry stakeholders. In this author’s opinion, the guidelines itself meet the threshold evidentiary requirement in Colorado as an admissible, reliable medical document. For more information, please feel contact us with specific case-related questions. As a resource, the CDC guidelines can be found here. A copy of the Colorado joint letter on prescribing and dispensing opioids can be found by following the link located here.

 

History of Workers’ Compensation, Part III, Emergence of the Modern-Day System

This is the final piece of a three-part series surveying the history of workers’ compensation. Prior to 1911, an individual residing in the United States, regardless of their state residency, who suffered a workplace injury could only recover damages by utilizing traditional tort based law. In other words, an injured worker would need to sue their employer and claim the employer’s negligence or intentional conduct caused the subsequent injury. The employer could raise defenses such as contributory negligence or assumption of risk to bar the receipt of monetary damages. This system was often cumbersome, time-consuming, unpredictable, and expensive for both the employer and employee.

In 1911, the State of Wisconsin passed the first statutory law specifically addressing workers’ compensation entitlement benefits. The goal ofWisconsinAct the act was to create an efficient system to adjudicate claims while reducing legal hurdles for the injured worker thus creating a predictable system where the employer could foresee limited monetary risks. The Wisconsin system created a “no-fault” legal system in which the injured worker would no longer need to prove that the employer engaged in some type of culpable negligent or intentional conduct. According to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, “the intent of the law was to require an employer to promptly and accurately compensate a worker for any injury suffered on the job, regardless of the existence of any fault or whose it might be.” The legislation provided for wage loss benefits, cost of medical treatment, disability payments, and payment for vocational rehabilitation training.

The legislation also eliminated an injured workers’ right to seek damages historically available through the tort system. As discussed in part two of the series, by 1911 the general public had become more concerned about the deplorable and often unsafe working conditions in factories across the nation. The Wisconsin Workers’ Compensation Act barred the injured worker from pursuing non-economic damages awarded by juries, including pain and suffering and loss and enjoyment of life. Similar to today’s ubiquitous state-based worker’s compensation acts, the Wisconsin Act enumerated the specific type of damages an injured worker could receive, thereby duly preventing the injured worker from requesting a jury to adjudicate damages. The judge adjudicating workers’ compensation claims, as a finder of fact, could not award benefits beyond the provided benefits in each respective act. The Wisconsin Act, while providing for specific benefits and shifting liability to the employer under the no-fault system, also provided employer’s with protection by limiting the scope of damages and removing the question of damages from unpredictable juries.

In the decade following the Wisconsin Act, nearly every state in the union promulgated some form of a workers’ compensation act. Mississippi was the last state to pass an act, but did so by 1948. Interestingly, as Gregory Guyton points out in his “Brief History of Workers’ Compensation,” the medical profession did not receive the worker’s compensation system with open arms. Medical professionals generally viewed worker’s compensation as a form of socialized medicine. According to Guyton, when the Social Security disability insurance act was created in the 1930s, disability based medicine expanded becoming lucrative for medical professionals. On the heels of the respective disability acts, the American Medical Association published the first guides to the evaluation of permanent impairment in order to develop a method to provide compensation evaluations. In Colorado, the legislature has decided to continue using the third edition of the AMA Guides to permanent impairment. The guide is currently available in six editions.

Given the volume of claims in any one state for benefits, each state may elect to create administrative agencies to adjudicate workers’ compensation claims. Colorado, for example created the Office of Administrative Courts in 1976 to hear an array of limited subject matter cases, including workers’ compensation. Prior to that time, the District Court handled worker’s compensation claims. Any individual working in workers’ compensation is familiar with the respective administrative system and ministering the claims. As the American workforce changes in age, and disability laws, including the ADA, become more pervasive in the work environment, there are open questions as to whether disability acts or managed health care administered by the federal government will substitute various aspects of workers’ compensation. For now, the workers’ compensation model most are familiar with will remain stable, subject to changes made by each respective legislation.

The History of Workers’ Compensation Part II: The Rise of Workers’ Compensation Coverage

This second segment, of the three part series on the history of workers’ compensation law, briefly summarizes how the industrial revolution fueled the workers’ compensation system. The first resemblances of workers’ compensation insurance coverage primarily arose because of increased revolutionized industrial practices and socialist schisms in European political ideals. Around the 1860s, the industrial revolution was beginning to take hold in Europe; the American Industrial Revolution area would steam forward in the later part of the 1800s. Industrial imperial countries, specifically Germany, wrestled with growing the economics of their respective country while continuing to expand their empires. To achieve these goals, political leaders were required to balance the progressive social worker-centered ideals and traditional conservative business goals.

 

Observers credit Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Germany as establishing Otto_von_Bismarckthe benchmark standards for workers’ rights in Germany in the early 1870s. Gregory Guyton explained that, although Bismarck was not a benevolent leader, the legislation passed under his tenure resulted from a compromise between traditional views on industry and the increasing pressures from the growing Marxist movement.  Bismarck spearheaded the Employer’s Liability Law of 1871 extending legal protection to workers in specific labor areas including mines and railroads. In 1884, Germany adopted the Workers’ Accident Insurance Act. It provided pensions to those unable to work because of non-occupational causes. The subsequent Public Aid Act provided disability benefits for workers unable to work as a result of an on-the-job injury.

 

By virtue of creating a monetary distribution system for injured workers, Otto von Bismarck’s movement also created immunity for employers from civil lawsuits. This was a divergent political and legal shift from the ideals of the popular socialist political camp. Hence, the early workers’ compensation laws contained the exclusivity of remedies similar to what can be found in today’s statutes. Alan Pierce, Workers’ Compensation in the United States: The First 100 Years (Lexis Nexis 2011).

 

As the industrial revolution grew in America in the 1880s, so did public awareness of the unsafe work conditions faced by the daily laborer. In 1906, a socialist political activist, Upton Sinclair, published the graphic novel expose’ The Jungle. The novel, which followed a family of immigrants working the Chicago slaughter houses and exposed the horrific working conditions, gained ubiquitous attention amongst progressives. In the wake of The Jungle, the U.S. Congress passed several federal laws aimed to protect the public working class and general consumers, including the Food and Drug Act of 1906.

 

Still, little was done in terms of workers’ compensation insurance coverage in America. Common law tort liability in civil courts was the only remedy available to a worker injured in the course of employment. The American legal system posed challenges to immigrant workers such as procedural and language barriers. An employer could still raise the defense of assumption of risk or contributory negligence as a bar to any momentary recovery an injured worker could be entitled to. In his article, Guyton points out that the federal Congress acted by passing laws such as the Employer’s Liability Act in 1906 and 1907. The Acts respectively mitigated the harsh contributory negligence laws.

 

Following this Congressional intervention into an otherwise laissez-faire American capitalism culture, several states including New York and Massachusetts attempted to pass state based workers’ compensation reform laws. These reformations ultimately failed. However, President, later Supreme Court Justice, Howard Taft acted upon entering office. Taft signed into law the Employer’s Liability Act of 1908. The purpose of the act was to protect railroad workers’ engaged in interstate commerce. Each state developed independent commissions on how to address the liability for an injury. Private agreements between employers and workers lead to contractual obligations for employers to pay medical expenses for on the job injuries while workers’ waived their right to sue in civil tort. It was in this climate that the workers’ compensation system based in state law arose in 1911, which will be the subject of the next article.

History of Workers’ Compensation Law: Part 1, Ancient Beginnings

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The modern day workers’ compensation system has a long, and often dark, history. The concept of an individual’s right to recover monetary compensation for sustaining an injury caused by another is one of the oldest legal concepts in recorded human history. One observer has pointed out that “the history of workers’ compensation begins shortly after the advent of written history itself.” Gregory Guyton, “A Brief History of Workers’ Compensation,” Iowa Orthop. J, 1999, 19: 106-110. Guyton argues that, regardless of how professionals involved in the system “lament the difficulty” of its administration, understanding the history of the workers’ compensation system lends valuable perspective to its critical importance in the work place. This three part series, Ancient Beginnings, Industrial Revolution, and Modern America, will deliver the basic historical framework underpinning the workers’ compensation profession.

The first historical recording of law requiring payment of monetary compensation for bodily injury dates back to the Code of Ur-Nammu, which is the oldest surviving set of written laws. The Code of Ur-Nammu, which is written on stone tablets and currently on exhibit inHammurabi_Code Istanbul, originated in Mesopotamia sometime between 2100-2050 B.C, while under the reign of King Namma of Ur. The overarching goal of the code was to establish “equity in the land.” In doing so, King Ur dictated laws such as “if a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out ½ of mina in silver” or 30 silver shekels. The code itself implies that the payment of compensatory awards applied to all aspects of daily life. The code also reflects the ubiquitous use of labor slaves, as it only provided for and only awarded monetary compensation awards to the slave owner, rather than the laborer, if the slave in the case sustained the injury.

The Code of Hammurabi, famously known for the harsh eye-for-an-eye decree, adopted the compensation-for-disability concept when instituted sometime between 1795-1750 B.C. Neither the codes of Kings Ur or Hammurabi appear to give an employer special exempt privileges. According to the Code of Hammurabi, if a man committed an unintentional assault or bodily harm against another free man, he need only be charged the value of doctor’s fees as a penalty. Rev. Claude Johns, “Babylonian Law”, 11th Ed. of Encyclopedia Britannic, (1910-1911). There were harsh penalties for careless and neglectful behavior on the part of those providing public services. For example, if an unskilled surgeon caused loss of life or limb, the surgeon’s hands were cut off. Scholars point out that the code also contained instances when compensation could be awarded based upon a schedule if the underlining injury was a result of neglect conduct. One can use their own imagination to lament on how this code was applied to individuals who engaged in careless actions that caused harm to their employees. The monetary compensation and respective legal codes only applied to free citizens. One explanation for the lack of specific work-place laws certainly is that the workers’ in the high intensity jobs, such as construction, were not entitled to legal protections due to their social position as property slaves.

Contemporary observers are part to turn of the century Greek, Roman, Arabic, and Chinese legal codes as the next step in the evolution of workers’ compensation law. Gregory Guyton notes that the ancient legal systems provided for compensation schedules for the loss of a specific body part based upon the schedule on compensation for the injury itself. The compensation given to an individual for loss of a body part was only based upon the scheduled award. The value of an impairment disability did not exist in antiquity. See Geerts, Achille, et. al., Compensation for Bodily Harm: A Comparative Study, (1977). For example, in Ancient Rome, the civil liability for causing physical impairment to another citizen was contained in the civil law delict codes. Whether one was held liable for damages, based upon the schedule, depended on the degree of fault of the offending party. The Roman delict provided the early foundations for negligence based personal injury compensation systems. By all accounts, these legal systems did not include remuneration for physical impairments (disability affecting an individual’s ability to perform a task or job), but only provided compensation for an actual injury.

Payment for an actual impairment, equivalent to modern impairment benefits, subtly arose in the pre-Renaissance feudal system. The payment of quasi-impairment compensation occurred when landlords would provide impaired feudal serfs compensation for disabling physical conditions. See Gayton, Supra. One not need think too hard on whether a serf was providing services to a lord at the time of the injury. The arbitrary award to a loyal serf stemmed from the feudal lords’ culturally imposed sense of honor and benevolent obligation to care for his servants. There is no definitive evidence to suggest that the royal elites in the time of Kings Ur or Hammurabi engaged in similar practices.

The Middle Ages and pre-industrial Renaissance Europe gave way to the birth of the English common law system. The slow reduction of enslaved and indentured laborers correlated to an increased number of persons (protected under the laws) entering into more labor-intensive jobs. The law needed to respond in turn. Guyton notes that early English Common law established three principles known as the “unholy trinity of defenses” to determine whether work place injury was compensable. First, the contributory negligent principle held that if a worker was in “anyway” responsible for an injury, the employer was not liable. Second, the “fellow servant” rule exempted an employer from liability when the workers’ injury arose out of the negligent conduct of a co-worker. Third, the “assumption of risk” rule permitted employers to enter into contracts with workers whereby the worker would waive the right to sue the employer for damages. Since employers would often enter into these agreements with workers when a job required exceptionally dangerous work, the waiver agreements became known as “death contracts.”

Hundreds of years later, the modern American workers’ compensation system eviscerated the three early English compensability laws. The lessons gleaned from antiquity reflect the slow growth of the compensation for injury system, which was born out of necessity to address growing disputes amongst those protected under the respective legal system. The next edition of Cup O’ Joe will discuss Part II, how the industrial revolution shaped the modern workers’ compensation system.

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