June 2009

Some Frustrated with Generous North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Packages for Public Employees

June 30, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

A June 14th story in the North Carolina News & Observer voices discontent with the money that North Carolina spends on workers’ compensation and other benefits for state employees. The article discusses the workers’ comp case of a NC Highway Patrol Captain named Mark Nichols, who had to take a three-month leave due to serious illness and surgeries. Thanks to North Carolina’s generous compensation laws, Capt. Nichols did not even have to dig into vacation time or sick leave that he had accrued over the course of two and a half decades on the force.

The article argues that generous North Carolina workers’ compensation packages for public employees create inequalities in the system. For instance, the massive investment in benefits has made it difficult for the state to increase real wages for employees. In addition, North Carolina’s current budget crisis (including a deficit of $4.5 billion) has put more pressure on legislators to explore ways of cutting excessive benefits.

All told, the state supports over 215,000 employees as well as thousands of teachers/workers in the University of North Carolina system. NC annually pays out $714 million to these beneficiaries. The North Carolina controller’s office does not maintain an accurate database over how specifically these compensation benefits get distributed, however. Per state laws, supervisors can accumulate uncapped vacation and sick leave benefits; and the state must pay overtime benefits for employees who do not “cash in” compensation time within a year.

Given the paucity of reliable budget figures and statistics on how workers’ compensation moneys and other benefits get distributed to North Carolina employees, it is difficult to perform back of the envelope cost benefit evaluations of solutions to this issue.

Piled-up Perks Carry Hidden Costs, North Carolina News & Observer, June 14, 2009

Perks Take Heavy Toll on Finances, Charlotte Observer, June 14, 2009

More Web Resources:

University of North Carolina

North Carolina’s Workers’ Compensation Laws

North Carolina Worker’s Compensation Case over ConAgra Plant Explosion Grows More Complicated

June 22, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

The North Carolina Department of Labor is reportedly deep in the process of investigating ten different entities that might be liable for damages in the June 9 explosion at a North Carolina Slim Jim plant that killed three workers and injured many more. The explosion has been regarded one of the most prominent worker safety failures in the state’s recent history and has merited a federal investigation.

Three companies in particular may shortly face a variety of workers’ compensation claims stemming from the accident, according to reports. Jacobs Engineering Group, Southern Industrial Constructors, and Energy Systems Analysts may all be charged with negligence with respect to the failure of the Slim Jim plant’s gas lines. (Investigators believe that a water heater gas pump accidentally allowed gas to leak into the plant’s pump room, setting the stage for the explosion.) Investigators suspect that employee negligence may also have contributed to the leak.

An attorney representing two injured claimants has publicly hinted that Jacobs Engineering Group and Energy Systems Analysts did not have the proper licensing to engineer gas line hookups and that their lack of experience and certification may have precipitated the dangerous conditions that led to the massive explosion. So far, the three aforementioned companies and other potential defendants (including ConAgra) have parsed their public statements carefully. Given the fluid dynamics of this complicated and likely long term North Carolina worker’s compensation case — as well as the amount of money potentially at stake — prospective claimants and defendants want to avoid accidental admissions of guilt or other admissions that might compromise their legal leverage.

Third Body Found in Slim Jim Plant Explosion Rubble, FOX News, June 10, 2009

Gas Leak Caused Fatal North Carolina Slim Jim Plant Explosion, Insurance Journal, June 15, 2009

More Web Resources:

Energy Systems Analysts

Southern Industrial Constructors

Victory for Claimant in North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Ruling

June 19, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

On April 21, 2009, the North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned a monetary ruling made by a lower court in the NC workers’ compensation case of Crawford v Phillips.

Facts of the Case

Crawford v Phillips involved the case of a worker at a carwash who got hurt in a slip and fall and sued his employers for injuries he sustained. The lower court awarded him medical benefits as well as disability payments.

Lack of Insurance Coverage

Under North Carolina law, employers who have more than three employees must carry insurance for workers’ compensation. The carwash owner never had this insurance. North Carolina law also mandates that owners must pay penalties for non-compliance.

Debate over How Much to Compensate for Lack of Insurance Coverage

The commission initially found the employer liable for damages of $50 a day, starting from the day of the accident, pursuant to the above-mentioned law that mandates insurance coverage. The unsatisfied claimant appealed this decision, arguing that his employer should have to pay penalties backdated–not from the moment of injury–but from the moment when the employer first set up his business back in 1988.

The Court of Appeals found for the claimant, ruling that the independent commission did not have the power to make law and that the carwash owner should have to pay out penalties backdated to 1988. The court has sent the case back down to the commission to adjust the penalty amount in accordance with its decision.

Amount of Penalty for Lack of Coverage Determined by Comp Law, Risk & Insurance, June 15, 2009

North Carolina Court of Appeals, April 21, 2009

More Web Resources:

Workers’ Comp Insurance

North Carolina Court of Appeals

North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Benefits for Seniors May Be Challenged

June 18, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

On May 11th, 2009, the North Carolina House Judiciary Committee considered a measure put forth by the North Carolina House Insurance Committee to cut workers’ compensation benefits for North Carolina citizens eligible for social security benefits.

The measure sent to the House closely mirrors Senate Bill 975, which had been submitted to the North Carolina Senate Commerce Committee at the end of March.

The proposed measures would require senior citizens over the age of 65 to curtail their workers’ compensation benefits 300 weeks after they become eligible for government benefits. The point of these measures is to cut government costs and help North Carolina recover from the throes of the economic recession that have plagued it and the rest of the nation. The proposals follow in line with a similar measure debated recently by the Utah Supreme Court. In that instance, the Utah court ruled that it is unconstitutional for citizens to claim workers’ compensation benefits and social security benefits concurrently unless they can justify said claims to an appeals board.

Per the proposed measure, House Bill 1022, North Carolina workers would have their workers’ comp benefits cut 300 weeks following either their 65th birthday or the commencement of their eligibility for social security benefits. The decisions made by the North Carolina House Judiciary and Senate Commerce Committees could have profound implications for state employers and employees alike, given that the monies at stake could amount to tens of millions of dollars per year.

North Carolina May Cap Workers’ Compensation for Retirees, InjuryBoard.com, May 28, 2009

Workers’ Compensation, Social Security Disability Insurance, and the Offset: A Fact Sheet, U.S. SSA Office of Policy, 2003/2004

More Web Resources:

Senate Bill 975

House Bill 1022

Dusty Room Causes Incurable Silicosis in College Professor: Situation has Implications for North Carolina Workers' Compensation Cases

June 12, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

A workers’ compensation case involving a Fine Arts and Ceramics Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University has led to an ongoing debate about building safety at the school and may lead to lawsuits in Virginia, North Carolina, and elsewhere.

Allan Rosenbaum had been working in VCU’s Fine Arts building for years, teaching crafts and ceramics. After inhaling significant quantities of fine silica dust over a period of years, Rosenbaum developed the incurable degenerative disease, silicosis. He brought a claim against VCU via Virginia’s Workers’ Compensation Commission and won disability benefits of over $210,000.

University Ignores Red Flags

Rosenbaum’s workers’ compensation suit tipped off university officials to the seriousness of the situation in the Fine Arts building. Numerous faculty members have since attested to the fact that the crafts area is — and has been — extremely dusty. Plastic sheets at one time covered ventilation screens. During kiln cleanings, massive clouds of silica dust spread out into the halls and propagated through the school’s ventilation system to other classrooms and buildings.

Rosenbaum was first diagnosed with silicosis by a colleague at VCU’s medical department, who warned school administrators of the hazards of continuing to expose faculty and students to large amounts of silica dust. VCU administrators responded by putting up notices about the dust and conducting an internal test of air quality. These tests found that dust levels were likely not dangerous; but critics of the administration retorted that the tests conducted were not accurate.

A North Carolina faculty member who had been working as a visiting professor testified that the Fine Arts building had terrible ventilation throughout his tenure at VCU.

Whether Professor Rosenbaum’s ordeal leads to other workers’ compensation claims against VCU for silicosis or other inhalation diseases is anyone’s guess. Since silicosis is a cumulative condition, individuals with the longest-term exposure to dusty conditions have the greatest risk for developing symptoms.

When dealing with workers’ compensation cases, injured parties often require strong, experienced legal help to advocate for their rights and get them appropriate compensation.

Professor Sickened by Dust, but VCU Says Facilities are Safe, Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 8, 2009

Suffering for Art, Workers Comp Insider, June 8, 2009

Related Web Resources:

Virginia Commonwealth University

Preventing Silicosis

North Carolina Workers Compensation Claims Sure to Follow Catastrophic Explosion at ConAgra Plant

June 11, 2009, by Michael A. DeMayo

The June 9, 2009 explosion of a Slim Jim plant in Garner, North Carolina will undoubtedly lead to NC workers’ compensation and wrongful death claims and could result in a drawn out court battle between the giant food manufacturer and the victims of the tragic blast.

Facts about the Blast

Investigators still don’t know what caused the 500,000 square foot building to explode Tuesday morning. One report suggests that an unidentified person called ConAgra’s Omaha, Nebraska headquarters over the weekend and threatened to bomb the Garner plant. Authorities are investigating this threat.

All told, 38 people were significantly injured in the blast. Three have died from injuries sustained. Four of the 38 injured survivors are being treated for severe second and third degree burns. Several firefighters at the scene got sick from ammonia fumes. The ConAgra building is still being tested for structural integrity: on-site investigators don’t want to risk getting crushed or injured while researching the source of the blast.

Accidental or Premeditated?

It remains to be seen whether the ConAgra explosion was some kind of mechanical or chemical accident, or whether it was an act of domestic terrorism. The victims of the blast and the families of the victims who were killed will no doubt seek compensation for pain and suffering, injuries, potential wages lost, therapies, and other damages.

While a giant company like ConAgra no doubt carries workers’ compensation insurance for contingencies like these, this situation is so much bigger than standard North Carolina workers’ compensation cases that the legal wrangling will almost certainly be broader in scope than is typical.

Who Will Pay?

• If the explosion was caused by negligence on ConAgra’s part, then the company and its insurers will likely have to pay out claims.
• If, on the other hand, a defective machine, component, or chemical caused the blast at the NC Slim Jim plant, then other entities will likely be held liable.
• And if it turns out that the incident was indeed an act of terrorism or subterfuge, the claimants’ case would be altered in many regards.

Hundreds of Other Claims?

It’s also significant to note that over 900 people work at the plant. Assuming that the plant will be out of operation for a while, pending the investigation, these employees won’t be able to work and collect paychecks. They, too, may seek compensation for wages missed, considerably complicating this already tangled matter.

2 Dead, 1 Missing after Slim Jim Plant Explosion, June 9, 2009, CNN

Third Body Found in Slim Jim Plant Explosion Rubble, June 10, 2009, FOX News

Related Web Resources:

Slim Jims

Con Agra