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Unusual workers’ compensation claims offer lessons

  • Published Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, at 12 a.m.

A dog, a bear and a canoe trip gone awry might sound like the components of a comedy movie, but they’re actually the basis for separate, unusual and real workers’ compensation claims.

“Most employers take steps to prevent workplace injuries, but they can’t anticipate every situation that employees may get themselves into,” says Rebecca Bentz, an editor and author who specializes in corporate human resources issues for compliance resource firm J.J. Keller & Associates Inc. “And some of those situations are bizarre, to say the least.”

Workers’ compensation laws differ from state to state, but there seems to be no limit to the odd ways that people injure themselves in what they consider on-the-job incidents. Here are three cases that Bentz found intriguing:

A dog’s tale

A family pet has been implicated in an Oregon woman’s workers’ comp claim. The employee, who regularly worked out of her home, tripped over her dog while walking to the garage to replace fabric samples for work that were stored in her van. She ended up breaking a bone in her wrist.

The Oregon Workers Compensation Board initially denied the employee benefits because she was at home, a location outside of her employer’s control. The state Court of Appeals, however, reversed the board’s decision, asserting that her home was, at times, her work environment. At the time she was injured, in fact, she was walking to her garage for the work-related task of getting fabric samples.

“Employees who regularly work from home may be entitled to workers’ comp benefits if their injuries arose out of actions or duties reasonably related to their employment, even if the risks – or dogs – that led to the injury were outside the employer’s control,” Bentz says.

She suggests that employers train employees who work from home on injury prevention. A safety check is another good idea for employers and employees, as is a corporate policy requiring employees to report injuries in a timely manner, as this may help prevent fraudulent claims.

Canoe chaos

An equally odd claim began with a group of employees who had finished a canoe trip celebrating the release of a new product. A number of them began to splash each other and tip over coworkers’ canoes.

Two coworkers noticed an employee standing on the sidelines and tried to pull him into the river. When their efforts failed, one of the men grabbed the employee and roughly took him to the ground. This caused a neck injury.

The Ohio Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision that the employee was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for injuries suffered during the mandatory team-building event.

“Horseplay doesn’t necessarily negate a workers comp claim,” Bentz says. “This case illustrates why it is so important to prohibit such activities in the workplace. Companies should enforce this rule with disciplinary measures, and monitor manager and supervisor support of this policy.”

She adds that, in this case, the injured employee and the coworker who threw him to the ground were both managers.

Bearly eligible

An outdoor adventure of a different sort brought about a strange claim in Montana. In 2011, the state’s Supreme Court upheld a ruling that determined a man mauled by grizzly bears at a tourist park was eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits, despite the fact that he smoked marijuana before feeding the animals.

The employer argued that the injured man was not an employee, but a volunteer. The employer also contended that because the man had smoked marijuana on the day of the attack, he was not eligible for benefits.

The Workers’ Compensation Court of Montana found that the injured man was not a volunteer, since he received money in return for completing tasks at the employer’s command. The Supreme Court affirmed this, as well as the lower court’s assertion that the use of marijuana was not the major contributing cause of the man’s injuries.

“When it comes to attacking humans, grizzlies are equal opportunity maulers, attacking without regard to race, creed, ethnicity or marijuana usage,” Judge James Jeremiah Shea noted in his decision.

The case offers a few lessons, Bentz notes. First, employers should be sure to accurately classify employees.

“In most states, independent contractors and volunteers are ineligible for workers’ comp benefits, but employers must be sure that these individuals are not actually employees,” she says.

In addition, employers should take steps to prevent alcohol and illicit drug use in the workplace.

“In many cases, a drug-free workplace policy can cut down on injuries,” Bentz says. “Some states even offer discounts on workers’ compensation premiums for employers who institute such policies.”

Terri Dougherty is an associate editor for J.J. Keller & Associates, a compliance resource firm based in Wisconsin.

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