Marking NCCI’s Centenary

Top Five Appellate Cases

Analyst Tom Robinson recently listed on NCCI’s website what he considers the 10 most-significant appellate decisions in the last 100 years. We discuss below his top five cases. Robinson is co-author of Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law.

Total Disability – Lee v. Minneapolis St. Ry. (1950)

As analysts have concluded, “total disability” is not to be interpreted as utter and abject helplessness. Evidence a claimant has been able to earn occasional wages or perform certain kinds of gainful work does not necessarily rule out a finding of total disability, nor require that it be reduced to partial disability as sporadic employment is not inconsistent with total disability.

Mental-Mental Injuries – Bailey v. American Gen. Ins. Co. (1955)

For decades after enactment of workers’ compensation laws it was an open question whether an employee could recover benefits because of a mental injury from work-related mental trauma. The Texas Supreme Court said yes.

The claimant was on a scaffold when it gave away, plummeting a co-worker to death. He tried to resume employment but suffered health issues, including nightmares. As Robinson notes, in ruling for the claimant the court said in effect: obviously the worker's body no longer functions properly; therefore, can you say that a body which no longer functions properly has suffered no harm to its physical structure? The body is not mere bones and tissues - it is an interrelated, living, functioning organism.

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“Substantially Certain” Rule - Mandolidis v. Elkins Industries, Inc. (1978)

In Mandolidis, the West Virginia Supreme Court held the state’s statute permitting damage suits against the employer if an injury or death results from the employer’s deliberate intent also permits such suit for "willful, wanton, and reckless misconduct."

Injury vs. Occupational Disease - Booker v. Duke Medical Center (1979)

The Supreme Court of North Carolina held that the fatal serum hepatitis contracted by the lab worker could be considered occupational disease because it was sufficient the workers’ job increased the risk of contracting the infectious disease.

Deceit by the Employer - Johns-Manville Products Corporation v. Contra Costa Superior Court (Rudkin) (1980)

Plaintiff alleged the employer concealed from him, and from the doctors treating him, that he was suffering from an asbestos-related disease. Hence his condition was aggravated by further exposure, and made worse because he was prevented from receiving treatment he would have obtained.

The Supreme Court of California held that if the employer’s only alleged misconduct was concealing the initial hazard of the work environment, and failing to provide protective devices, the only remedy would have been under the workers’ compensation act, even if governmental regulations on dust levels were violated. But the second injury—concealing the existence of the first, and thereby inflicting additional harm—was an independent wrong and hence not within the exclusive remedy clause.