Justice Davis says Workers' Comp decision will harm employee morale

By John O'Brien | Oct 10, 2013

CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has ruled a woman who helped a co-worker lift a box of personal effects is not entitled to Workers’ Compensation even though the injury occurred at work, and Justice Robin Davis says the decision will have a "chilling effect" on employee morale.

The court voted 4-1 to affirm a decision of the Workers’ Comp Board of Review on Oct. 4, ruling against Georgette Morton and her attorney, Reginald D. Henry. Davis cast the dissenting vote and filed an opinion.

Morton is a secretary at Seneca Health Services of Summersville. She was injured helping a co-worker with a box of maternity clothes.

“Without question, this is a marginal case in terms of compensability and reasonable minds certainly may differ,” the per curiam opinion says.

“However, we can discern no particular benefit to Seneca in petitioner’s admittedly kind, but purely gratuitous, gesture of assisting her co-worker with the box.

“We find petitioner’s suggestion that helping to lift the box was beneficial to the employer because it promotes generalized teamwork and camaraderie to be unavailing and a slippery slope.”

Morton injured her right wrist and shoulder while lifting the box, the opinion says. Morton lost her balance and fell backwards.

The claims administrator denied her Workers’ Comp claim because it did not happen “in the course of and resulting from” Morton’s employment. The Office of Judges agreed, even though Morton argued her position made her part of the company’s “support staff.”

The Board of Review and the Supreme Court both affirmed the lower decisions.

Using a 1970 decision, the court held that for an injury to be compensable under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, the injury must have resulted from Morton’s employment.

Davis wrote in her dissenting opinion that the majority’s decision was legally unsound.

“The fact section of the majority opinion points out that the box that the petitioner was helping the co-worker move ‘had been left in petitioner’s office,’” Davis wrote.

“This critical fact is never considered in the majority opinion’s analysis. That is, the co-worker’s box, which was large and contained maternity clothes, was not in some area of the employment premises that had no direct relationship with the petitioner.

“The petitioner’s workspace was directly impacted by the presence of the large box. It is obvious that removal of the large box from the petitioner’s workspace benefitted the employer by allowing the petitioner to have all the space she needed to efficiently perform the tasks she was assigned.”

Davis wrote that under the majority’s decision, an employee “would be foolish to show kindness toward a fellow employee” with anything he or she isn’t specifically authorized to do.”

From the West Virginia Record: Reach John O’Brien at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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