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Court Rejects Additional Workers’ Compensation Awards

The Ohio Supreme Court today decided two cases that clarified when injured workers can receive additional benefit awards.

The Supreme Court voted 6-1 to reaffirm its decision that state law does not permit an award of permanent-partial-disability compensation to an injured worker who has previously been awarded permanent-total-disability compensation in the same claim.

In a separate case, the Court rescinded an enhanced award for a violation of a specific safety requirement and sent the case back to the Ohio Industrial Commission to determine whether a car-part manufacturer should have known of a specific defect of a machine that hit a worker in the head.

New Medical Condition Prompts Second Injury Claim
In December 2016, the Court sided with the employer in State ex rel. Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Services, Inc. v. Indus. Comm. based on written briefs filed in the case. Sherry Redwine, who was injured while working for Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Services, asked the Court to reconsider its decision, and the Court agreed. It conducted oral arguments in June.

Writing for the Court in today’s majority opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote that the Industrial Commission does not have the legal authority to award permanent-partial-disability compensation if the employee has been previously been awarded  permanent-total-disability compensation in the same claim. She noted that the workers’ compensation law specifies instances where injured workers can receive two disability awards at the same, but Redwine’s claim is not one of them.

In August 2003, Redwine was injured at work. Her worker’s compensation claim was allowed for back injuries and depression. She applied for permanent-total-disability compensation, and the Industrial Commission concluded that, based solely on the psychological condition in her claim, she was entitled to the lifetime total disability benefits beginning in July 2010.

Three years later, Redwine applied for permanent-partial-disability compensation based on the physical conditions in the same claim.

A district hearing officer denied her application, stating that the commission lacked the authority under R.C. 4123.57(A) and R.C. 4123.58 to award her permanent-partial-disability compensation. The officer also noted that the physical and psychological conditions were the result of the same workplace injury, and the Ohio Supreme Court’s 1992 State ex rel. Murray v. Indus. Comm. decision ruled the law does not allow for simultaneous benefits for permanent-partial disability and permanent-total disability.

A staff hearing officer overruled the district hearing officer and concluded the law did not bar the compensation if the claims were from two separate conditions, and because Redwine’s psychological condition was the basis for the permanent total award, the second award for a physical condition was permitted.

Ohio Presbyterian filed for a writ of mandamus from the Tenth District Court of Appeals, arguing the Industrial Commission cannot make the double award. A Tenth District magistrate cited the appeals court’s 2014 State ex rel. Mosely v. Indus. Comm. to affirm the Industrial Commission ruling. The Tenth District accepted the magistrate’s decision, and Ohio Presbyterian appealed to the Supreme Court. After the Court issued a decision on the case in 2016, it agreed to reconsider the case this year.

Court Can Correct Errors by Commission
Justice Kennedy noted that if the commission misinterprets a statute, the Court may issue of writ of mandamus to compel the commission to correct its actions.

While acknowledging that the Ohio General Assembly has allowed the payment of concurrent awards in limited circumstances, the Court found that the state statutes involved in this case – R.C. 4123.57 and R.C. 4123.58 – do not expressly authorize concurrent payment of permanent-partial-disability and permanent-total-disability compensation in the same claim.

The opinion noted that there are two types of permanent-partial compensation awards that are designed to compensate an employee who can still work. One part of the law, R.C. 4123.57(B), covers compensation for a “scheduled loss,” such as the loss of a finger or loss of hearing, and sets a specific amount of compensation for each injury. Redwine cited R.C. 4123.57(A) and did not claim to have a scheduled loss.

The opinion stated the law does not specify the granting of simultaneous payments for permanent partial disability that is not for a scheduled loss and permanent total disability. It does allow for scheduled loss permanent-partial-disability awards in addition to permanent-total-disability awards, indicating the legislature intentionally authorized only certain conditions for double awards.

The opinion stated that, “[h]ad the legislature intended to allow an injured worker receiving permanent-total-disability compensation under R.C. 4123.58 to also receive in the same claim concurrent permanent-partial-disability compensation pursuant to R.C. 4123.57(A), it could easily have included that language in the statutes,” but it did not.

The Court held that if an injured worker is receiving permanent-total-disability, the commission does not have statutory authority to award permanent-partial-disability compensation pursuant to R.C. 4123.57(A) in the same claim.  The Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and granted a writ of mandamus.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined the majority opinion. Justice William M. O’Neill dissented without a written opinion.

2015-1074. State ex rel. Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Servs., Inc. v. Indus Comm., Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-7577.

Video camera iconView oral argument video of this case.

Robot-Controlled Equipment Causes Head Injury
Auto-part maker Camaco, LLC sought a writ of mandamus to overturn an Industrial Commission penalty for a violation of a specific safety requirement (VSSR) that added 35 percent to a workers’ compensation benefit award to an injured “weld tech trainee.”

In 2005, Camaco purchased a machine from Wayne Trails Technologies that bends metal tubing to form the frame for automobile seats. The system included a “Motoman robot,” which worked in conjunction with the metal bending machine, which Camaco referred to as the “Wayne Trail.” The robot could be placed in “teach” mode to incorporate adjustments and could operate at slow speeds.

The machine and robot were fully automated and surrounded by a wire-mesh fence in an area referred to as the “cell.” It was operated from a control station outside of the cell. There were two doors where employees could enter the cell. Each door had a safety system that shut off power to both machines when either door was opened. The metal tubing entered and exited the cell through two small, separate openings.

In early 2006, the machine stopped operating, and the operator called Robert Albu, the weld tech trainee, to investigate. Albu decided to enter the cell through the small opening where the materials exited, which did not trigger the automatic shut off. When Albu tried to fix the problem, it tripped a sensor that caused the transfer arm on the Wayne Trail to hit him in the back of the head, and he was injured.

The Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation investigated the accident and learned that Camaco did not require employees to wear hard hats to work on the machine or the robot, but that hard hats were available upon request. Albu applied for additional compensation for a VSSR, arguing that Camaco should have provided suitable headgear to employees in areas where they were exposed to contact with rigid objects, as required by an administrative rule. But a staff hearing officer denied the benefit, finding that had Albu entered through the cell doors, it would have shut off the machines and he would not have been injured. The company also argued that Albu could have worked on the problem from outside the cell, or could have entered through the door, shut off the power to both machines, and then powered up only the robot in the slower moving “teach” mode to resolve the problem.

Albu appealed, arguing that to troubleshoot the problem he needed to be in the cell with the power on and that Camaco knew there was a danger. He was granted a rehearing. A different hearing officer considering the case did not accept either side’s view on the accident, but instead pointed to a report by an expert that Albu commissioned for a separate lawsuit. The expert found that due to a design defect in the manufacturing system, the arm of the Wayne Trail would move at full speed, even if the robot was put in teach mode, and he noted the employees of Wayne Trail, which made the machine, were not aware of this when they trained the Camaco employees.

The officer concluded that since the bending machine could not be turned off when the robot was on, Camaco should have provided protective headgear to Albu and granted the VSSR compensation.

Camaco appealed, arguing there was no evidence that the company knew of or should have known of the design flaws, and could not have known it should have required Albu to wear headgear. A Tenth District Court of Appeals rejected the argument, concluding that Camaco did not raise the issue of the design defect during the Industrial Commission hearings, and the argument could not be used in the appeal.

The Tenth District affirmed the magistrate’s rejection of Camaco’s writ request, and the company appealed to the Supreme Court, which is required to hear this type of workers’ compensation appeal.

Company Had No Chance to Contest Claim
The company argued that since the issue of the design defect was not raised by Albu, but rather by the Industrial Commission in its final decision, there was no opportunity to defend against the design issue at the administrative hearing level. It claimed it was entitled to make that argument on appeal because of the timing.

Writing for a Court majority, Justice DeWine stated that while the commission hearing officer concluded Camaco should have provided head gear, the “hearing officer cited no evidence in the record that Camaco knew of the purported defect” and the need for headgear.

The opinion noted the expert who discovered the design defect prepared the report for litigation separate from the workers’ compensation claim and did not testify in the compensation case.

“Camaco should not be expected to have anticipated that the hearing officer would rely upon a theory not advanced by either party. An award for the failure of a safety measure ‘cannot be sustained without evidence of a prior malfunction or employer awareness thereof,’” the Court stated, citing its 1994 decision, State ex rel Taylor v. Indus Comm.

The Court vacated the VSSR award to Albu and remanded the case to the commission to determine whether Camaco knew or should have known about the defect at the time of the injury and provided protective headgear.

Chief Justice O’Connor and Justices French and Fischer joined the majority opinion. Justices Kennedy and O’Donnell concurred in part and dissented in part with a written opinion. Justice O’Neill dissented with a written opinion.

2015-0036. State ex rel. Camaco LLC v. Albu, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-7569.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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