The Backwards Workers’ Compensation Case
By David L. Schneider, Esq.
What would you think of a case where an injured employee refused to accept workers’ compensation benefits? What would you think if the employer requested a hearing and demanded the injured party accept them? Most people familiar with the workers’ comp arena would say that scenario is laughably outlandish. But in Arkansas, it would be considered business as usual. How that oddity became common place involved some legislative tinkering, a charity auction, creative lawyering, and a decision of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The legislative tinkering occurred in 1993. In that year, the Arkansas General Assembly, as part of several amendments to the Workers’ Comp Act, slightly changed the definition of a job related accident. In addition to an existing requirement that the accident must arise out of the course and scope of employment, the legislature decided to further require that the worker be performing an “employment service” at the time of the accident.
Feeling the Effect
A few years later, at a Wal-Mart distribution center near Clarksville, Arkansas, an auction was held in which surplus goods were sold and the proceeds donated to charity. Chris Boudreau, a Wal-Mart employee, purchased an item, which he proceeded to take to his truck. Unfortunately, he fell down some steps while doing so and injured his knee. In the ensuing workers’ comp claim, the employer prevailed by contending Mr. Boudreau was not performing an employment service at the time of his injury.
Mr. Boudreau’s attorney, not being one to take no for an answer, reasoned if his client was not performing an employment service when injured, he could not have been an employee either. That being the case, Arkansas’ exclusive remedy statute, which limits an injured workers’ remedy to a workers’ comp claim, wouldn’t apply. He then filed a civil suit against Wal-Mart, alleging Mr. Boudreau’s injuries resulted from its negligence. The jury eventually handed down a verdict for $100,000, which was upheld on appeal. A subsequent analysis of the trial court evidence indicated that, had the claim been accepted in the comp system, the employer’s liability would have been less than $20,000.
New Trend Follows
Not surprisingly, lawsuits soon were filed by employees injured in circumstances similar to Mr. Boudreau’s. The employers filed motions to dismiss, arguing they were immune because the accidents were job related. State trial court judges were inclined to grant those motions because the injury happened where the plaintiff worked. On appeal, the Supreme Court realized the truncated record trial court judges developed in dealing with summary judgment motions was not adequate for them to review the issue. Their solution was to hold that only the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission had the authority to determine the correct jurisdiction of a potential workers’ comp claim. The result is injured employees sometimes appearing before the Commission arguing they didn’t get hurt at work, while their employer insists they did.
A typical example of this atypical case was a recent claim involving an employee of a Tyson Foods processing plant. The employee, who was returning from his lunch break, sustained fatal injuries when a co-employee ran over him in the parking lot. The decedent’s estate filed a claim asking the Commission find he was not an employee when injured. Tyson asserted the employee had been carrying out his job duties at the time the accident occurred. It seems strange to say the employer won, because it was ordered to pay benefits. But, that’s what happened. In short, the case was backwards.
About the Author:
David L. Schneider is a mediator and legal advisor with the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission. An attorney since 1983, Mr. Schneider was one of the first persons to be certified by the Arkansas Supreme Court as a civil mediator, and is also certified to mediate claims pending before the Arkansas appellate courts. Having been with the Commission since 1989, Mr. Schneider has been involved with all aspect of deciding workers’ compensation claims and frequently writes and speaks on workers’ compensation matters to employers, employees and claims professionals. He is now in his forth decade of dealing with workers’ compensation issues.
Come hear David speak at these upcoming seminars!
Workers' Compensation Law and Practice in Springdale
Fundamentals of Workers' Compensation in Fayetteville