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Chop Chop: racing to help after workplace injuries in food service

I. Dangerous Food

When it comes to workplace injuries, you’ve got to put food services at or near the top of the list. Very few places are made to order for as many injuries as the wide variety of food service industry jobs, made in America. Unfortunately, all too few of these workers seek out the timely help of a worker’s compensation attorney…this may reflect the feeling that they are often blamed for their own injuries. If anything, this concern suggest that there may be other problems, associated with the workplace, which make it even more important to seek the help an experienced workers compensation attorney immediately.

Economic studies indicate that there are now easily 12 million workers in the general food and drinking service Industry. Rates for injuries easily exceed 60 injuries per 10,000 full-time employees. The so-called “special food” services are even higher and riskier than this rate: special food services include caterers, food trucks, and food service contractors. This special segment of the service industry has more than 700,000 workers in the United States (when there’s no nationwide shut down).

We are going to discuss a particular case, where the employer attempted to shift the blame for the injury squarely on the back of the worker. Speaking of which, the sprains, strains, and tears associated with falls that cause back injuries are the most common complaint in all food service industries. And, indeed, it was a serious back injury that was eventually defended by this Worker’s Compensation attorney.

II. Half Baked Defense

Mr. Johnson was working for a well-known café as a cook. The injury was to his back, and was witnessed by several employees at the café. There was no debate by the café that he had in fact fallen. With one year of experience at that specific café, he was a  respected employee. Testimony gathered from witnesses by the worker’s compensation attorney also found two other witnesses who came into the café around 5:30 in the morning and saw him lying on the floor. Some of the most significant eyewitness testimony came from Larry, who is been working through the night shift. He testified that he saw Johnson “slip on a small amount of butter or margarine and fall, hitting his tail and right elbow.”

The worker’s compensation attorney reconstructed other important details of the fall, such as the slippery tile floor. Further testimony from Larry was also helpful since he had taken Johnson to the emergency room shortly after six in the morning. Medical records obtained by the worker’s compensation attorney were consistent with the physicians observation of swelling and marks on the skin. It was another full week, however, before Johnson was seen at an occupational health exam, who then ordered an MRI. Johnson was excused from work at that time,  only “for another day.” When the MRI revealed a broad disc protrusion, potentially encroaching on a nerve, Dr. Ciachella excused him from work until further medical tests.

By the time the full claim was made to the North Carolina Worker’s Compensation commission, it was evident that the employer was attempting to stop a comp award. The implication was that Johnson had been under the influence of alcohol or some type of drug. There was also some vague reference in the records opposing the award about Dr. Ciachella being “associated with substance abuse or other misbehavior.” Again, the workers compensation attorney showed these were baseless allegations.

III.   Fighting false allegations by an employer

Johnson’s Worker’s Compensation attorney put it bluntly…the café owner believed that the Industrial Commission “was required to make certain additional findings,” which were based upon mere insinuations of the café. These insinuations centered on serious but vague allegations. One was that the commission had to find as a matter of fact that Johnson had been abusing OxyContin and/or other controlled substances. This would, as the workers compensation attorney successfully pointed out, would remove the Commission’s discretion in what was true…or relevant. Furthermore, there was another bare allegation introduced to the record that a certain Dr. C (not Ciachella this time) had been charged with distribution of controlled substances; that this Doctor C. had been treated for substance abuse: and, finally, that this doctor’s alleged misconduct should be attributed to Johnson’s alleged substance-abuse problem. There were similar vague allegations, next against Johnson’s wife, and regarding her supposed attempts to “influence the testimony of certain co-employees.”

Johnson’s worker’s compensation attorney exploded these proposed findings of “fact” for a variety of reasons. For example, the worker’s compensation attorney established if the allegations were true, yes, Johnson might have been a drug abuser, or that his wife was not always a “person of integrity.” Yet these allegations did not have anything to do with dismissing Johnson’s real injury at work.  Nor had any of these supposedly introduced co-employees come forward.

IV. Insult to Injury: Broiling Employer Duties

The worker’s compensation attorney noted that a non-compliance fine had also been applied against the café in this case. The fine was based upon the café’s clear, ongoing failure to have been paying into the North Carolina insurance fund. Whether or not this had any factor in motivating the employers desire to not pay coverage was not discussed. But the North Carolina Court of Appeals focused on the worker’s compensation attorney’s basic argument: North Carolina is clear on the employer’s obligations to pay for workers comp coverage. The worker’s compensation attorney noted that the language left very little room for not finding an uncooperative employer. “Any person who, with the ability and authority to bring an employer in compliance… Shall be guilty of a class one misdemeanor. Any person who violates a subsection may be assessed by civil penalty…to the employer’s employees injured during the time the employer failed to comply.” Certainly, it was ironic for an employer who was specifically not meeting its own legal obligations to vaguely question the honesty of an injured worker’s spouse.

Conclusions:   

 It is always possible, the worker’s compensation attorney actually agreed, that issues of drug abuse or substance disorders – or even a dishonest spouse – may affect the weight of evidence introduced to proven injury. Not only had these allegations not been established in fact, they had no bearing in terms of preventing Johnson from receiving benefits.

If you, a family member or a loved one have been hurt in a job injury, especially a slip and fall, please contact us. You will speak with a worker’s compensation attorney who can best answer your questions.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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