Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I Won't Eat At This Restaurant

Sometimes its almost impossible to believe some reports of abusive employer conduct. Perhaps in some other country a tale like this would not be surprising, but in modern United States one would not expect this kind of story.

A recent Tennessee case demonstrates the extent of callousness and inhumane treatment some employers can display, even in the second millenium where society is presumably more advanced than in the Industrial Age.

Lance Erickson was employed as a co-manager of the Sonic Drive In restaurant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., owned by SDI of Oak Ridge Turnpike, LLC. On Nov. 14, the general manager of the restaurant asked him to repair a heating element used to keep food warm until it was served.

As Erickson attempted to repair the heating element, an unknown person plugged the device into an electrical socket, sending a 220-volt current through Erickson's hands and body. The shock rendered him unconscious for five minutes. Employees told him later that he fell and hit his head on the floor or a safe, but he had to call his fiance to take him to the hospital because workers at the restaurant were too busy, according to the court record.

Erickson was treated at the Methodist Medical Center but suffered chest pains, memory loss and sensitivity to light after the accident. He asked his district manager, Wade Bell, and Bell's successor Phillip Wheatley to pay his medical expenses. They told him they would "take care of it," but the bills remained unpaid.

On Nov. 3, 2008, 51 weeks after the injury, Erickson filed a workers' compensation claim fearing the statue of limitations would preclude him from reimbursement of his medical expenses.

A few days after filing his claim, Wheatley vulgarly expressed his anger, asking him, "What the ... do you think you are doing? I told you this was taken care of."

Erickson had worked at the Sonic Drive In for six years and had never received a reprimand the entire duration of employment.

But within weeks of filing his workers' compensation claim Erickson received two reprimands.

On the first occasion, he received a reprimand for giving a customer a $2.97 refund four minutes after the restaurant had closed and not properly reporting the refund so that it would not be logged onto daily sales records. On Dec. 20, 2008, he was reprimanded and later fired for leaving the store during his shift without another manager on site.

SDI placed Erickson on three days' suspension after the second reprimand, extended the suspension for three more days and then told him he was being terminated.

Remarkably, yet in an all too commonplace situation, SDI denied that Erickson's injuries were work related and alleged that he had been fired for misconduct.

At trial, co-workers testified that other store managers had routinely left the premises without other managers on site and that Erickson had used the usual process for reporting refunds.

Medical and vocational evidence was presented and the trial court found that Erickson suffered a 10% permanent partial disability and was entitled to a vocational disability benefit equal to six times the impairment rating − an award of $107,702.40 − because his employer had not offered him a meaningful return to work. The court also ordered the employer to pay continuing medical benefits for his injury.

SDI appealed and lost.

In addition the Tennessee Department of Labor fined the employer for failing to report the accident. The amount was not noted by the court opinion and as far as I'm concerned it wasn't enough.

My only solace in this case is that in all likelihood SDI's insurance didn't cover the judgment because the employer didn't follow its insurance claims reporting policy and likely the carrier denied both coverage and cost of defense.

I know the fast food industry is the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to working conditions, but employers like those in this case are all too common, and should frankly be put out of business. If a business can't treat the people who flip your burgers with any regard, how do you think they view their customers? I'm not taking the chance...

And in all honesty, knowing that appellate cases get published for the whole world to see and then taking an appeal with these facts is evidence that these business owners have zero interest in public perception of their brand. That can only translate to the quality of their products.

The case is Erickson v. SDI of Oak Ridge Turnpike LLC, E2011-02427-WC-R3-WC, 09/04/2012.

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