When a worker is injured in Pennsylvania, he or she is generally entitled to workers’ compensation benefits when wages are lost due to the injury. Whether this loss in wages is actually due to the injury is a point often litigated. The issue can be particularly difficult when the injured worker is terminated from his or her job, allegedly for reasons unrelated to the work injury.
This issue comes up on occasion when an injured worker is receiving total disability benefits, and the workers’ compensation insurance carrier wants to reduce or stop those benefits. The continued receipt of total disability benefits may hinge on whether the injured worker was terminated for reasons unrelated to the work injury. The case law had suggested that if an injured employee is terminated after a work injury, for actions that took place before the work injury, the termination is considered related to the work injury.
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently addressed this issue in Harvey v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB). In that case, Ms. Harvey, a registered nurse, suffered a fracture in her neck, requiring a cervical fusion, in a work-related motor vehicle accident on July 4, 2001, and began to receive total disability benefits.
While investigating the accident, police allegedly discovered narcotic medications in Ms. Harvey’s car. When advised of the findings, the employer, Monongahela Valley Hospital located in Western Pennsylvania, investigated how Ms. Harvey had obtained the narcotics. The hospital concluded that Ms. Harvey had been signing out narcotic medications, but not delivering the drugs to patients. As a result of her violation of hospital policy, Ms. Harvey was terminated.
When Ms. Harvey was released to light duty work, the workers’ comp insurance carrier filed a Petition for Modification, to reduce the workers’ compensation benefits. The hospital presented testimony that jobs would be available within the physical restrictions of Ms. Harvey, but that she could not accept the jobs because she had been terminated for reasons unrelated to her work injury. Ms. Harvey contended that, since she was terminated after the injury for actions which took place before the work injury, the termination must be considered related to the work injury. As such, if the jobs were not being offered to her, then the employer was not able to demonstrate that work was actually “available” to her.
The Court found for the workers’ compensation insurance company, and granted the Petition for Modification. While the actions at issue took place before the work injury, the employer was not aware of the misconduct until after the work injury. A clear distinction was drawn by the Court when misconduct occurs before the work injury – if the employer knew of the misconduct before the injury, but elects to terminate the injured worker after the work injury, the termination is considered related to the injury. If, however, the employer did not know of the actions until after the work injury, as with Ms. Harvey’s case, then the termination is considered unrelated to the work injury.