We have previously discussed the “coming and going rule” in Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation, where, essentially, an employee is not covered by the PA Workers’ Compensation Act if he or she is injured while on the commute to or from work.  Like most legal rules, of course, there are exceptions.  The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently addressed this issue.

In Lutheran Senior Services Management Company v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Miller), the injured worker had a serious motor vehicle accident while going in to work.  Again, by the general rule, workers’ compensation benefits would not be available to the injured worker.  However, this fact pattern has a twist.  The injured worker was Director of Maintenance Director of Maintenance for a nursing home facility.  There were occasions when he had to come in on a day off to deal with an emergency (he was a salaried employee, not an hourly one).  On those occasions, the established practice of the employer was to provide “comp time” for him.  The “comp time” would run from when he got paged, to when he got back home.

One day, the injured worker was sick.  He planned to call out of work.  The employer called him and said a security camera malfunction had to be fixed.  None of the three employees working under him were available, so he went into work.  On the ride into work, he was involved in the bad car accident.

According to a memo released by Alfonso Frioni, Jr., Esquire, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), Commissioner Susan M. McDermott has decided to retire after spending over twenty years on the WCAB, including a stint as the very first female Chairperson of the WCAB.  The entire text of the memo is:

On behalf of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, we extend our special thanks and congratulations to Commissioner Susan M. McDermott on her retirement from the Board.

Commissioner McDermott was appointed to the Appeal Board by Governor Tom Ridge in 1996, serving over twenty years until her recent retirement in January 2017.  Susan was one of the first two women appointed to the Board in its one-hundred-year history, and was the very first woman Chairperson of the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board serving from 1996 to 2010.  Susan’s contributions to the professionalism of the Board were extensive with her instituting many of the Board’s internal operating procedures, particularly with regard to the circulation of opinions, adopted from The Commonwealth Court.

Back in June, 2015, we discussed the Commonwealth Court decision in Duffey v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Trola-Dyne, Inc.).  In this decision, which confounded us at the time, the Court said that an injured worker could not successfully expand the description of his or her work injury after an Impairment Rating Evaluation (IRE) was performed.

Recently, however, this decision was reversed by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.  Though the basis was not that suggested by the injured worker, the Supreme Court found that the IRE in this case was not valid.  Essentially, the Court said that, under the American Medical Association (AMA) Guides (the books which dictate permanent impairment in PA), the doctor who performs the IRE must determine the level of impairment.  The mere fact that the impairment in this case was both physical and psychological, though only the physical was accepted, does not change this requirement.  Because, said the Court, the psychological impairment stemmed from accepted physical injury, such impairment had to be considered or dismissed by the physician conducting the IRE.  Instead, the IRE physician testified that he was not asked to, nor was he capable of, opining on psychological impairment.  As such, the Court found the IRE not valid, reversing the decision of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.

This decision was a 5-2 split, with two different Justices rendering dissenting opinions.  Though the reasons and arguments vary between the two dissents, the overriding theme of both seems to be that the psychological injury was not accepted, and, thus, should not have been part of the “impairment rating” as related to the accepted work injury.

Pennsylvania work-related injuries occur in many forms.  We see musculoskeletal trauma, such as a broken wrist or ankle, a herniated disc in the neck or back, or tears in the knee or shoulder, among many others.  Neurological injuries also unfortunately happen, and can include Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD)/Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or various nerve abnormalities, like carpal tunnel syndrome or ulnar neuropathy.  Different than these conditions, though certainly no less serious, can be injuries at work which lead to a severe burn.

For these burn victims, recent research is giving hope to a new way of treatment, using stem cells.  In what sounds like something taken from the pages of a science fiction novel, or a Star Trek episode, according to CNN, RenovaCare has created what it dubs “The SkinGun.”  This amazing tool would take harvested stem cells, put into a water-based solution, and “shoot” the spray onto the burned area.  New skin would then begin to develop at the cellular level.  Typical complications in burn cases, such as infection and a body’s graft rejection, are minimized by the SkinGun.

At this point, the SkinGun has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, though continued research and testing is taking place.  We will continue to monitor this, and other medical advances, to keep our clients well informed.

On our blog, we have previously discussed cases where the dispute in a case is whether an injured worker was actually engaged in his or her employment duties at the time of the injury (what we call the “scope and course” of their work).  As you may have noticed, these cases often depend on the exact facts involved, making it hard to discern a general rule.  A case recently published from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania did nothing to change this status.

In Grill v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (U.S. Airways), the injured worker was at his job, and was on work time.  The accident happened when Claimant was helping his coworkers move a locker he brought from home to replace a battered one the Employer had been using.  No supervisor had authorized, or was even aware of, this action.  While moving the locker, the injured worker suffered shaft fractures in his fourth and fifth metacarpals, which required surgical treatment by the Philadelphia Hand Center.

When the claim was denied by the workers’ comp insurance carrier, the injured worker filed a Claim Petition.  After hearing the evidence, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) denied the Claim Petition.  Specifically, the WCJ found that the injured worker was not required by his job to move the locker and that he had not sought permission from his supervisor to move the locker.  As such, “Claimant was not engaged in the course and scope of his employment when he was injured.”

As we have mentioned, workers’ compensation laws vary widely from State to State, making the selection of which workers’ compensation laws apply to a given case a critical determination.  As much as there are things in PA law that benefit the workers’ comp insurance carrier, many aspects of Pennsylvania law are more beneficial to an injured worker than the laws of other States.  One would think that Pennsylvania law would apply to an employee who primarily works in PA and was injured in PA.  One may be wrong.

In Salvadori v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Uninsured Employers Guaranty Fund and Farmers Propane, Inc.), the injured worker was a truck driver for a company based in Ohio.  The job performed by the injured worker, however, was primarily in the State of Pennsylvania.  Indeed, the injury took place in PA, when his truck was rammed by another truck at a rest stop.  The injured worker suffered serious injuries including “a right shoulder rotator cuff tear, injury to the anterior chest wall, and disc herniations in his neck and low back.”  The injured worker also experienced a concussion.  As a result of these conditions, the injured worker was disabled from his job.

Since he worked primarily in PA, and was injured in PA, there is (clearly) jurisdiction in Pennsylvania for the injury.  Therefore, he filed a Claim Petition for benefits in PA.  When his employer was discovered to not carry workers’ compensation insurance in PA, the injured worker filed a Claim against the Uninsured Employers’ Guaranty Fund (UEGF).  The injured worker testified and presented medical evidence.  Neither the Employer, nor the UEGF, presented any contradictory evidence.  As such, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted both the Claim Petition against the Employer, as well as the one against the UEGF.

As noted on our website, generally, an injured worker cannot sue his or her employer for its negligence in causing a work-related injury.  Additionally, unlike in a negligence case, workers’ compensation benefits do not include payment for pain and suffering.  Occasionally, however, there is another party (a “third party”) that the injured worker can sue and obtain those “non-economic damages” (like pain and suffering).  We see this primarily when the employee is injured in a motor vehicle accident or is the victim of a defective product.

Unfortunately, though, the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (Act) is designed so that the injured worker who can file suit against a third party, and can recover those additional damages, actually ends up with none of that extra money.  We have discussed the concept of “subrogation” here before – this is what allows the workers’ comp insurance carrier to get paid back from the money an injured worker receives in a third party suit.

Recently, in Whitmoyer v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Mountain Country Meats), the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania addressed whether the workers’ comp insurance company is entitled to a credit for future medical treatment after a successful third party recovery.

To win a contested workers’ compensation case in Pennsylvania, the injured worker must prove that he or she suffered an injury while in the scope and course of employment and that he or she is disabled as a result of such injury.  The situation only changes moderately when the injured worker is actually killed in the accident, and it is a Fatal Claim Petition being litigated.  In that case, the burden is to prove that the injury, or the conditions at work, caused (or were a “substantial contributing factor” in causing) the death of the injured worker.

Recently, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania examined what is needed to show that the conditions of work were indeed a substantial contributing factor in causing the death of an injured worker.  In this case, Justus v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Bay Valley Foods), the injured worker was found unresponsive locked inside a shed that contained chemicals.  The presence of the chemicals, and initial incorrect assumptions regarding what happened, led to a delay in diagnosing the actual problem –  a subarachnoid hemorrhage.  The injured worker passed away before treatment for the  subarachnoid hemorrhage could be performed.

The widow of the injured worker filed a Fatal Claim Petition.  Though the subarachnoid hemorrhage was unrelated to the work duties, the Petition alleged that the conditions at work led to a delay in treatment, which became a substantial contributing factor in the death of the injured worker [That the original condition need not be caused by work for subsequent damages to be compensable is a topic we have discussed previously].  Specifically, it was alleged that the distance of the shed from the main building caused a delay in finding the injured worker, and the presence of the chemicals in the shed caused an incorrect diagnosis, leading to a delay in proper treatment.

In law, almost every cause of action has a “statute of limitations.”  This is simply a time within which a cause of action can be brought.  Typically, if a suit or action is not filed within the applicable statute of limitations, the suit or action will be dismissed.  Pennsylvania workers’ compensation cases are no different.  Basically, the statute of limitations for a PA workers’ compensation case is three years.  But that is only part of the story.

There are actually time constraints in PA workers’ comp other than the basic statute of limitations.  These can be longer or shorter than the general statute of limitations.  For example, notice of an injury must be provided within 120 days of the injury (though, in certain types of cases, that time can be extended under the “discovery rule”).  Unless the case is covered by the discovery rule, the failure of the injured worker to provide notice to the employer within 120 days of the injury will cause the workers’ compensation claim to be denied.

On the other hand, there are types of workers’ comp cases in PA that have a statute of limitations longer than three years.  When an injured worker dies subsequent to an injury, as a result of the work injury, we have what is known as a “fatal claim.”  Under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, as stated in Section 301(c)(1), ” . . . wherever death is mentioned as a cause for compensation under this act, it shall mean only death resulting from such injury and its resultant effects, and occurring within three hundred weeks after the injury.”  So, as long as the death takes place within 300 weeks of the work injury, fatal claim benefits may be obtained (these provide benefits to dependents, since general workers’ compensation benefits in PA end with the death of the injured worker).

A recent study from Northwestern Medicine and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, published in Science Daily, relates that scientists have identified what part of a patient’s brain is triggered during a “placebo effect.”  A “placebo” is a “fake medicine,” which can actually cause real pain relief.

We have many injured workers who suffer tremendous pain due to a litany of different conditions, from a fractured ankle, to a lumbar radiculopathy, to complex regional pain syndrome [CRPS] (formerly known as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy [RSD]).  Even years after a work injury, many of our clients continue to suffer chronic and unremitting pain.  Relief through medications is often hit and misses.

This research is not suggesting that injured workers are not actually suffering from pain, or that placebos should be more widely used.  Instead, the significance of this research is to identify where to look in the brain of an injured worker, to determine how that person is processing a medication (since each person is a unique individual, and treatment helping one may not help another).

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