Smoke-Free Environments Law Project

The Center for Social Gerontology, Inc.

2307 Shelby Avenue

Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103

734 665-1126 fax 734 665-2071 sfelp@tcsg.org

 

WORKER'S COMPENSATION CLAIMS & ENVIRONMENTAL TOBACCO SMOKE

 

OVERVIEW:

 

The Michigan Worker's Compensation Law (MCL 418.101) enables individuals to seek monetary benefits for bodily injury caused or aggravated by employment-related accidents or diseases. While there is currently limited case law in Michigan involving such claims based on exposure to Environmental Tobacco Smoke (ETS), there have been a number of employee claims filed in which Worker's Compensation benefits were sought due to an occupational disease alleged to have been caused by ETS in the workplace. Michigan cases have gone both ways on ETS-related claims, but it is clear the Worker's Compensation Commission recognizes ETS as a cause of certain occupational diseases, especially those related to lung and respiratory problems.

 

CAUSAL CONNECTION BETWEEN DISEASE/INJURY AND ETS IN WORKPLACE:

 

As in other Worker's Compensation cases, the burden is on the employee to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that there is a causal connection between his/her disease and ETS encountered in the workplace setting. This means that the evidence - generally medical evidence -- supporting the claim of a causal connection between ETS and an occupational disease simply has to outweigh opposing evidence.

 

NOTICE TO THE EMPLOYER:

 

The employee filing a claim for Worker's Compensation benefits has an obligation to have affirmatively notified or communicated to the employer that ETS in the workplace was causing injury or other physical conditions to the employee. This notice is to assure that the employer is aware of the workplace conditions causing the physical harm to the employee, and to enable the employer to attempt to make a reasonable accommodation for the employee. Without this prior notice and opportunity for the employer to respond, the Michigan Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission has denied benefits and has stated that such benefits would have been denied even if the employee had been able to demonstrate a causal connection between an occupational disease and ETS in the workplace.

 

REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION:

 

When the employee notifies the employer that s/he is suffering from an injury or physical condition due to ETS in the workplace setting, it is clear that the employer has an obligation to make reasonable accommodations to address the problem. If reasonable accommodations are not taken by the employer, the Michigan Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission has awarded benefits to an employee who had demonstrated a causal connection between ETS in the workplace and lung disease. If reasonable accommodations are taken by the employer or offered to the employee and the employee rejects them, the Michigan Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission has denied benefits to the employee. What is a reasonable accommodation will vary with the specific circumstances of the case.

 

EACH CASE DECIDED ON ITS OWN MERITS/FACT:

 

The success or failure of ETS-related Worker's Compensation claims will, of course, depend on the facts of each claim, but ETS-related Worker's Compensation claims have been successful in Michigan and other states.

 

RELEVANT CASE LAW:

 

The following are relevant cases involving Worker's Compensation claims based on exposure to ETS. As noted below, ETS-related Worker's Compensation claims have been both approved and rejected.

 

MICHIGAN CASES:

 

David Heffner v. State of Michigan, Dept. of Mental Health
Docket No. 1997 ACO #614
1997 MIWCLR (LRP) LEXIS 544; 10 MIWCLR (LRP) 1556
November 14, 1997

 

Plaintiff, a security guard at a maximum security psychiatric hospital, alleged that his exposure to ETS at work aggravated his pre-existing asthmatic condition. Defendant temporarily reassigned plaintiff to smoke-free areas during the day shift, but subsequently offered plaintiff the midnight shift which was designated as smoke-free. Plaintiff refused the midnight shift and was subsequently terminated for refusing to work the midnight shift. Plaintiff sought benefits for the period of Feb. 14, 1994 to Oct. 6, 1994, during which time he was terminated; in October, 1994, he asked to be employed on the midnight shift and was employed. The Magistrate denied plaintiff the benefits he sought for this period. The Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission upheld the Magistrate, finding that defendant's actions in selecting the midnight shift to accommodate plaintiff were reasonable, noting that defendant's offer of reasonable employment was based on considerations of whether plaintiff would be exposed to residual cigarette smoker from time to time during the day shift, contrary to restrictions the plaintiff's doctor had set for plaintiff's health protection. The Commission further held that the Magistrate properly found plaintiff unreasonably refused an offer of reasonable employment, thereby voluntarily having removed himself from the workforce and thence making himself ineligible for worker's compensation benefits.

 

Vinkle v. Emmet County, et al
Docket No. 1996 ACO #362
1996 MIWCLR (LRP) LEXIS 1141; 9 MIWCLR (LRP) 1375
July 31, 1996

 

Plaintiff, an attendant and "jack-of-all-trades" at a small county airport, alleged that working in an environment of dust, airplane fumes, exhaust, chemicals, and ETS caused, contributed to or aggravated his existing lung condition. The Magistrate denied benefits, finding plaintiff failed to establish a work relationship for plaintiff's pulmonary problem. The Magistrate also indicated that, even if the plaintiff had established a causal relationship between the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and his employer, he would have denied benefits due to lack of timely notice by the plaintiff to the employer that he was experiencing breathing difficulties which were somehow related to his work. The Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission upheld the Magistrate's findings on all points. The Commission noted at length the importance of and purpose for timely notice to the employer in these cases, stating: "Accordingly, we would hold that an employee must affirmatively state or otherwise effectively communicate to the employer that he or she claims to be suffering from an injury or other physical condition which is work related, unless the injury arises in circumstances so as to make such facts patently obvious to the employer." The Commission observed that the notice requirement is more "easily applied in cases involving easily identifiable single event injuries" than in cases such as this "where a worker may be suffering from an ongoing or pre-existing condition." In a situation [such as Vinkle's], it is difficult for the employer to know that the work situation is causing the employee injury "unless the statement or incident is such that it would impart knowledge to others that the worker's underlying or pre-existing condition is now being affected by his work," and, "in many cases, this requires an affirmative statement by the employee that the work is causing the pain or the condition."

 

Jean Fasang v. Ford Motor Company
Docket No. 1991 WCABO #121
1991 MIWCLR (LRP) LEXIS 836; 4 MIWCLR (LRP) 3099
June 26, 1991

 

Plaintiff claimed she suffered disabling orthopedic and lung problems, the latter of which she alleged were caused by years of working with heavy smokers and, to a lesser extent, in a polluted atmosphere. Evidence showed that although the employer was aware of plaintiff's lung problems, supervisors continued to place her in smoky, dusty jobs, until she voluntarily quit work. The Administrative Law Judge denied benefits, finding plaintiff failed to prove she suffered from disabling lung or orthopedic conditions. The Worker's Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), after thoroughly reviewing the somewhat conflicting evidence concerning ETS and the plaintiff's condition, reversed, finding that plaintiff suffered a disabling occupational lung condition brought on by years of inhaling secondary cigarette smoke (ETS), and some industrial air pollutants, and also suffered work-related orthopedic problems. The Board also found that the employer "knew the plaintiff was on certain restrictions regarding bending, lifting, and unclean air, and nevertheless assigned her to work stations and tasks which exceeded those restrictions," including knowing that the "plaintiff indeed was restricted to working only in those areas with clean air, that [the employer] knew that there was heavy cigarette smoking in some of the areas to which plaintiff was assigned, and the [the employer] lacked, or claimed he lacked, the authority to do anything about it," and that the employer "was aware of medically-imposed restrictions and more or less ignored them in assigning and re-assigning plaintiff." The Board noted that it lacked the authority to make a determination whether the employer should have done something about the cigarette smoke and other air-borne pollutants, saying that the Board only had the authority to determine if "these conditions had a compensable effect on the plaintiff." The Board also stated that "a claimant need establish causality only by a preponderance of the evidence," and that "the WCAB may conclude that the party who has the burden of proof has produced evidence which preponderates when it is persuaded, viewing all the evidence, circumstances and reasonable inferences, that the evidence and inferences which support the claim outweigh those which oppose it." On this basis, the Board concluded the plaintiff had an "occupational disease" caused by ETS and other air-borne pollutants and was entitled to benefits, plus interest.

 

Walter O'Neil v. Chrysler Motors Docket No. 1991 ACO #126
1991 MIWCLR (LRP) LEXIS 549; 4 MIWCLR (LRP) 1104
June 14, 1991

 

Plaintiff developed a debilitating obsession with ridding his workplace of cigarette smoke and chose to resign when management refused to transfer him to a completely smoke-free work environment, causing further depression. The Magistrate awarded plaintiff a closed period of benefits for psychiatric disability. A split Worker's Compensation Appellate Commission reversed the award of benefits, finding plaintiff's mental problems were not compensable. The dissent would find plaintiff was disabled by a work-related psychiatric condition and would affirm the award of benefits. The majority of the Board found that the plaintiff, when placed in a work environment which is not smoke-free "becomes so overwrought that he must be considered impaired in his ability to function;" but, the Board said, "we cannot agree with plaintiff that work brought him to this turn, this intolerance amounting to disability....It is [plaintiff's] position that his years at defendant sensitized him, thus contributing significantly to his intolerance of smoke. There is, though, no evidence at all of this sensitization on a physiological basis.... Finally, the evidence cannot support a finding, and the magistrate did not make it, that work engendered plaintiff's dedication to a smoke-free environment for himself, a dedication so profound that it can manifest itself in bizarre inappropriate behavior." The Board also said "Defendant's point is well taken in this quarter that plaintiff never had a wage-earning capacity that included working around smokers." The Board stated: "We are of course satisfied ... that plaintiff cannot work at defendant in a smoky environment, but we find no support in Dr. Feldstein's testimony for the finding that this inability was ever related to having worked at defendant." [SFELP comment: It appears that this case could have gone the other way, since there does seem to have been evidence that O'Neil's condition began in the work setting, but it is possible that his "bizarre" behavior had some impact on the majority decision. This demonstrates how the specific facts of a case can affect the outcome.]

 

NON-MICHIGAN CASES:

 

The following Worker's Compensation cases from jurisdictions outside Michigan are listed for reference purposes, but do not include brief synopses. The cases are listed in alphabetical order of the state in which the case was decided.

 

Deborah Poston v. Rufus R. Smith, Jr.
666 So. 2nd 833; 1995 Ala. Civ. App. LEXIS 382
Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama
July 21, 1995

 

Eastern Airlines and Gab Business Services v. Patricia Crittenden & Travelers Insurance
596 So. 2d 112; 1992 Fla. App. LEXIS 2514
Court of Appeal of Florida, First District
March 11, 1992?

 

Ate Fixture Fab and St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Co. v. Paul R. Wagner 559 So. 2d 635; 1990 Fla. App. LEXIS 1364
Court of Appeal of Florida, First District
March 1, 1990

 

James C. Palmer v. Del Webb's High Sierra
108 Nev. 673; 838 P. 2d 435; 1992 Nev. LEXIS 137
Supreme Court of Nevada
September 1, 1992

 

Herbert Schober v. Mountain Bell Telephone
96 N.M. 376; 630 P. 2nd 1231; 1980 N.M. App. LEXIS 928
Court of Appeals of New Mexico
August 7, 1980

 

In the Matter of Veronica Johannesen v. New York City Department of Housing Preservation & Development
84 N.Y. 2d 129; 638 N.E. 2d 981; 1994 N.Y. LEXIS 1347
Court of Appeals of New York
June 21, 1994

 

In the Matter of Judith Mack v. County of Rockland
71 N.Y. 2d 1008; 525 N.E. 2d 744; 1988 N.Y. LEXIS 714
Court of Appeals of New York
May 26, 1988

 

Kellogg v. Mayfield et al
72 Ohio App. 3d 490; 595 N.E. 2d 465; 1991 Ohio App. LEXIS 588
Court of Appeals of Ohio, Twelfth Appellate District
February 11, 1991

 

CONCLUSION:

 

While each Worker's Compensation case stands or falls on its own merits, existing cases demonstrate that the threshold issues which an employee must address are the following: first, providing medical evidence which demonstrates a clear causal connection between the injury/affliction and ETS in the workplace; and second, showing that the employer was notified that the ETS in the workplace was causing health problems for the worker, so that the employer had an opportunity to make a reasonable accommodation. If these facts can be demonstrated, then the key issue will be whether the employer provided a reasonable accommodation for the worker, and this will turn on the specific facts of the case. It appears quite clear that, if the employee has an injury caused by ETS in the workplace, has clearly notified the employer of the harm being caused by the ETS, and the employer has taken no reasonable action or no action at all, the Worker's Compensation claim is likely to succeed.

 

___________________________

 

Prepared by SFELP, June 6, 2000.