Workers Compensation Woes: Washington Supreme Court’s Troubling Decision

Date: August 25, 2017

Recently the NFIB Small Business Legal Center joined with other concerned industry groups in an amicus filing before the Washington Supreme Court in Street v. Weyerhaeuser Company. The case was concerning because the Washington Court of Appeal had ruled that a worker was entitled to compensation without expert testimony that his condition was necessarily caused by his work. Needless to say, we’re always on the look out for cases like this, which have the potential to affect workers compensation rates for the entire small business community.

For background, Washington law provides than an employee is entitled to workers compensation if his or her condition arises “naturally and proximately” out of distinctive employment conditions. But here the employee’s workers compensation claim was unsupported by any medical testimony speaking to whether his condition was caused (or not) by his work. Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals ruled that there was “substantial evidence” in the record—based on statements from his doctor—for the jury to reasonably conclude that the employee’s chronic back condition was more than likely caused by working conditions. But, jurors are not medical experts and are not qualified to make these sorts of determinations. Accordingly, we argued, in the Washington Supreme Court, that it is improper to defer to a jury’s judgement that an employee’s condition relates to his employment in the absence of some concrete medical testimony affirmatively endorsing that conclusion.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court affirmed in a recent decision. This will likely result in undeserving claimants receiving workers compensation benefits. Indeed, if jurors are allowed to simply infer that a condition was caused by the worker’s employment, they will often award compensation to individuals whose conditions are totally unrelated to their work. And that means even higher workers compensation rates for already struggling businesses.

As a side note, this decision is similar in some ways to a problematic workers compensation decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. For commentary on the Protz case out of Pennsylvania, check out this article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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