Monday, October 14, 2013

Just The Facts, Ma'am

A recent case heard by the West Virginia Supreme Court found that simply assisting a co-worker lift a box of personal effects was not a task beneficial to the employer, thus denying workers' compensation benefits.

This is why many people who are not trained in the vagaries of the law hate it; how do you determine what's beneficial to the employer in those close cases, like Morton v. West Virginia Office of Insurance Commissioner, No. 11-1382?

Morton worked for Seneca Health Services, as a member of its support staff. Her job required that she provide secretarial, reception and data-entry functions necessary for accurate processing of clinical and administrative data at Seneca.

In September 2010, one of Morton's coworkers put a large box in Morton's office for Elisa Robinette, a mutual colleague, to retrieve. The box contained maternity clothes that Robinette had let the coworker borrow.

When Robinette arrived to claim the box, she was unable to lift it on her own and she asked Morton for help. Morton lost her balance while helping lift the box and fell backwards, injuring her right wrist and shoulder.

Morton filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits, but Seneca's claims administrator denied it, finding Morton's injury had not resulted from her employment.

Up the judicial ladder the claim went: Morton's argument, acknowledging the box contained personal effects, was that acquiescing to any request for assistance by another employee fell within the scope of her job duties and that her employer benefited by having employees who "work collaboratively and cooperatively with one another."

The Supreme Court majority acknowledged that there was no question that Morton's injury had occurred in the course of her employment because Morton was on Seneca's premises, during her regular work hours and ostensibly was tending to her duties at the time.

But whether Morton's injury had resulted from her employment was a closer question, the majority said, and there was no West Virginia precedent directly on point.

The majority also noted something that perhaps legislators understand when they write the laws, or perhaps they don't - that such cases are particularly fact driven.

In this case, the majority reasoned that the box of maternity clothes and the function of taking them to Robinette's car had nothing whatsoever to do with Seneca's business, aside from the fact that the box happened to have been left there for the convenience of Robinette. The majority said it could "discern no particular benefit to Seneca in petitioner’s admittedly kind, but purely gratuitous, gesture of assisting her co­worker with the box."

If Morton could recover in workers' compensation, this would essentially make employers "the insurer of anyone injured on the premises, regardless of the nature of the activity giving rise to the injury, so long as an employee was assisting with the activity in an effort to be helpful and collegial," the court majority said.

In dissent Justice Davis argued that the fact the box had been left in Morton's office meant that it had a direct impact on Morton's job, and that it was "obvious that removal of the large box from the petitioner’s workspace benefited the employer by allowing the petitioner to have all the space she needed to efficiently perform the tasks she was assigned."

I don't know how Morton got her medical bills paid or whether there was any claim for time off.

And I'm not saying the majority in this case was wrong, or that the dissent was right - what is interesting to me is where the line in the sand gets drawn and for what reasons.

Maybe Morton's argument is accurate and that this case will have a chilling effect on people helping others at work which would demoralize the work force thus impinging production with a deleterious result to the employer.

My guess is most workers have no clue about the Morton case and that human behavior will prevail and there will be some new Morton like case with a slightly different twist on the facts that will result in a compensable injury.

For work comp wonks, this is like Disneyland...

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