Category Archives: workers compensation

Workplace perfume injury leads to workers comp award

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In an opinion that reminds me of my law-school torts class with its discussion of cringeworthy accidental injuries, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, decided the workers compensation appeal of a woman whose COPD was exacerbated by a fellow employee’s sprayed perfume.

The issue was whether the aggravation of the employee’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) arose out of her employment. The workers compensation judge thought not, so the employee appealed.

Work

Five years ago, the employee was working as a nurse in a nursing home when she was exposed to three separate sprays of a perfume in one day. She experienced difficulty breathing after the second and third sprays.

Hospital

Her breathing difficulties continued the next day, when her daughter took her to the hospital, where she was admitted to stay for 12 days. She was transferred to a rehabilitation center where she stayed for seven days and then to another hospital, where she was admitted and stayed for another seven days.

Ever since her hospital stays, the employee was dependent on oxygen. She was unable to return to work.

“Hair on fire” case comparison

In re-considering the workers compensation judge’s denial of benefits, the Appellate Division compared this case to that of Coleman v. Cycle Transformer Corp., 105 N. J. 285 (1986), in which an employee accidentally set her hair on fire while trying to light a cigarette during her lunch break. The New Jersey Supreme Court found that her injuries did not arise out of the course of her employment.

The Coleman court reasoned that the the nature of the risk to the employee of setting her hair on fire in that manner was personal to the employee and that the employment connection with the injury was minimal. There was no condition of her work or workplace that was a contributing cause of her injury.

Idiopathic (spontaneous) fall cases

As though the discussion of an employee’s setting her own hair on fire were not enough, the court moved on to a discussion of workplace injuries caused by spontaneous falls. An employee who burned his face when he fell into a pot stove during a seizure was awarded workers comp in 1944 because the stove was a condition of the workplace that contributed to his injury.

Likewise, an employee who fell because of a heart attack and hit his head on the floor, as a result of which he later died, was entitled to workers comp in 1965 because the injury he suffered was a risk of his employment – i.e., the impact with the floor, which was a condition of the workplace.

The smoking cases

Unable to leave well enough alone, the court reviewed the smoking cases, in which employees suffered smoking related injuries on the job. In a case from 1955, when an employee was injured after spilling gasoline on his clothing and then trying to light a cigarette, the injuries were compensable because they arose out of the course of his employment.

But in a 1952 case, an employee was denied workers comp when he suffered injuries from a match head that flew into his eye when he tried to light a cigarette while driving a truck during work. This particular risk of using matches or smoking was somehow unconnected to the employment. The different outcomes in these two smoking cases perplexes me.

The workers comp judge in the recent perfume case apparently thought it was more like the match-head cigarette case than the gasoline-spill cigarette case, due to the employee’s personal sensitivity to perfume. While I don’t like that outcome, I can’t blame the judge for being a bit confused about how these cases should be decided, considering the state of the past case law reviewed in this opinion (the match-head case in particular).

Perfume case, Appellate Division analysis

The Appellate Division reversed the workers comp judge, reasoning as follows: But for being at work that day, the employee would not have been injured by her co-worker’s perfume. The air she had to breathe, which was contaminated by the perfume, was a condition of (and a risk of) her employment. Since breathing the contaminated workplace air injured her, the injury arose out of her employment.

The court also pointed out that just because the employee had COPD did not mean that the subsequent aggravation of that COPD was not compensable. Employees may be entitled to compensation where the injury causing their total and permanent disability amounted to the aggravation of a pre-existing condition. In fact, the Second Injury Fund allows employers a credit under these circumstances.

Sexton v. County of Cumberland/Cumberland Manor, Docket No. A-6414-06T1 (Sup Ct NJ, App Div 2009).

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Dividing future workers comp medical expenses between different insurers OK, Court says

On December 19, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, decided a workers’ compensation case involving different insurance companies that were appealing a decision from the Division of Workers’ Compensation apportioning responsibility for future medical expenses between them.

The facts, which were not disputed, show that the employee worked for AGFA, becoming totally and permanently disabled as a result of physical activities performed at work over a 23-year period. During that time, AGFA had workers’ compensation insurance with three different companies.

Initially, the employee’s osteoarthritis symptoms arose in 1994 while the employer carried insurance with Reliance.

Then in 2000, the employee had more symptoms while her employer carried insurance with ACE. Finally, in 2001, the employee’s condition arose again while AGFA had workers’ compensation insurance with Travelers.

A physician testified at trial that it would be impossible to determine exactly when the employee’s condition became permanent.

The Division of Workers’ Compensation judge apportioned responsibility between the three insurers upon determining that the employee’s work during the three different periods of coverage contributed equally to her disability.

Two of the three insurance companies argued that the workers’ compensation judge was wrong in apportioning responsibility for future medical expenses among all three insurers, because the judge could not have determined whether the employee needed future medical treatment during each of the three periods of insurance. Both Reliance and ACE thought that only Travelers, the last insurer, should pay for the employee’s future medical treatment, under the “last injurious exposure” rule. The Appellate Division disagreed.

The Appellate Division pointed out that when the onset date of the injury or disease cannot be determined, and the employment contributed to the injury or disease during each of the insurers’ coverage periods, apportionment among the different insurers may be appropriate.

Additionally, the insurers argued that the apportionment of responsibility for future medical expenses among three different insurers creates logistical problems.  These problems include the difficulty in having three different insurers choose a medical provider and pay for that provider’s services.

Dismissing the insurers’ argument about logistics as “meritless,” the Appellate Division said there is no rule stating that only the last insurer should pay future medical expenses whenever there is a logistical problem with payment and with choosing a physician. The Court added that the insurers could always apply to the Division of Workers’ Compensation for orders designating a treating physician and addressing payment terms for future medical expenses.

Natale v. Celanese, Inc., et al., Docket No. A-0840-07T1, Sup. Ct. NJ, App. Div. (2008).

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Ability to do light work doesn’t disqualify disabled employee from receiving workers comp

A former Camden police office is eligible to receive workers compensation even though he was able to do some light work, according to an unpublished opinion from the Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court. The officer was injured in an on-the-job auto accident and his physician stated that he was unable to perform his duties as a police officer. A physician hired by the city, however, opined that the officer would be able to perform his old job. The officer and the city went to trial.

During the trial, the city played a video showing the officer performing some physical work. The trial judge took the video into consideration, but stated that it did not negate the presence of injuries preventing the officer from performing his duties as a police officer. The court found in favor of the police officer keeping his workers compensation disability benefits.

The city appealed. The appellate court agreed with the trial court, determining that the video evidence showing the officer performing some work could not keep him from receiving disability benefits.

Lance v. City of Camden Police Dept., DOCKET NO. A-6606-06T3 (Sup Ct NJ, App Div 2008).

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