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9 of the Most Bizarre Workers’ Comp Cases

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Workplace injuries happen all the time. The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there were 2.7 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in the private sector in 2020 — and that’s a decrease from the previous year. While many workplace incidents and ensuing workers’ compensation claims look the same, every case is unique. Some are just a little more unique than others.

1. A woman accidentally drinks lye

In 2012, Arby’s employee Laura McRae suffered third-degree burns to her esophagus after mistakenly drinking lye from a cup left in the employee break room. Apparently the lye was in the same type of cup used for holding drinks, and McRae assumed that what was in the cup was drinkable. McRae filed a workers’ compensation claim for the incident. She and her employer ended up going to court — in a case that went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court — because McRae refused to sign over the release of her medical records to the workers’ comp board to evaluate her claim. Per the Georgia Supreme Court ruling, the workers’ comp board had a right to demand the medical records.

2. Falling on the way to work — at home

Workplace injuries and claims are getting murkier with the rise of remote and at-home working. A case in Germany illustrates this well. In December 2021, a German court ruled that an at-home worker’s fall on his way from his bed to his desk counted as a workplace accident. The man slipped and broke his back as he was walking down the stairs from his bedroom to his home working station and the court ruled that the employer’s insurance had to cover the accident.

3. Blacked out on a breakfast sandwich

A man who worked as a field service agent for Dish Network, Inc. sustained serious injuries from a car crash as he was driving to his first appointment of the day. He was eating a breakfast sandwich and choked, then blacked out. The vehicle then crashed into a pillar on the side of the road. The man did not receive workers’ comp benefits because although the accident happened on the job, it was the result of his eating a breakfast sandwich, which wasn’t a job requirement. See: Boothe v. Dish Network Inc., 2021 Mo. LEXIS 437 (Mo., Dec. 21, 2021) for the case explanation.

4. High-five a bear

A woman who worked as a wildlife associate at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania suffered severe gashes to her hand and arm, which resulted in severe blood loss. She eventually lost her thumb and ended up having 12 surgeries. Her arm was bitten by a Himalayan black bear, Kooter, that was housed on the property. The woman would do a “high-five” trick with the bear but on this occasion the bear didn’t do the trick as usual and began to chew on her arm. If she hadn’t been pulled away from the bear’s enclosure and treated by the guests she was showing the trick to, the woman probably would have died. See Alborg v. Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, et al. for the case explanation.

5. An assault while working from home

In another work-from-home matter from 2004, Kristina Wait of Nashville, Tennessee, suffered severe injuries including stab wounds when her neighbor assaulted her at her front door. She had been working from home as usual when the neighbor came over to visit for a few minutes. Shortly after, he knocked on her front door again and as soon as she answered this time, he assaulted her. Since Wait’s decision to invite a guest into her home was not a factor of her employment, even though she worked from home, she wasn’t awarded benefits for her workers’ comp claim.

6. Student-versus-faculty basketball game injury

A middle school teacher for the Calumet School District No. 132 in Illinois got injured while playing in a school-sponsored basketball game after school. Although these types of programs are typically considered “voluntary” and therefore not required to be covered by the school, the principal had pressured the teacher to play. Since the teacher felt participation was closely connected to his employment and not simple recreational interest, he was awarded benefits for his workers’ compensation claim.

7. Foot burns from a Crockpot

For some jobs, the line between work and personal life can blur, even if they’re not work-from-home positions. In 2014, a truck-driver-in-training, James Jarrell, was awarded workers’ comp benefits for an incident where he climbed down from his bunk in the truck’s sleeper cab and stepped into a Crockpot full of hot water. He wasn’t logging his time yet but his trainer had told him to get up and get dressed for a pre-trip inspection just before it happened, so it was considered associated with his employment.

8. A dislocated hip from a vending machine

In 2003, Clint Dwyer, an employee at a Circuit City in Illinois, hockey-checked a snack vending machine at work to help another employee dislodge a bag of chips that was stuck. Dwyer fractured his hip in the process. He was ultimately awarded workers’ comp benefits because a court ruled that he was leaving his course of work to help his colleague and this vending machine had a history of snacks getting stuck in it. Dwyer’s action was therefore “reasonably foreseeable.”

9. Fake robbery staged by employer

Staging a fake robbery may help keep your employees on their toes, but it can also cause undue stress. In 2011, four supervisors at West Kern Water District in California decided to follow up a staff training on responding to robberies with a fake holdup. One of the supervisors donned a ski mask and pretended to hold at gunpoint the cashier at the district office where people often pay their water bills in cash and demand cash. He didn’t actually have a gun, just a paper bag with the message written on it, “I HAVE A GUN PUT THE MONEY IN THE BAG.” The cashier, Kathy Lee, was shaken, crying, and nauseous. She eventually required psychiatric treatment. Lee sued for emotional distress and assault and won.

No workplace injury case is the same

Although these nine examples show just odd workers’ comp cases can be, it’s important to remember that even for common workplace injuries, no two cases are alike. Several factors, including the smallest details, can change the outcome.

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