On April 21, 2010, landscaper Johnnie Wilkes, an employee of Greenville, NC, was struck by another driver while operating a truck owned by the city. The collision caused Wilkes to sustain a concussion, three broken ribs, an abrasion on his head, and an array of back, neck, and pelvic injuries. In Wilkes v. City of Greenville, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that Wilkes’ employer was responsible for providing workers’ compensation not only for his initial injuries, but also tinnitus, depression, and anxiety Wilkes later developed due to the accident. However, the Court’s decision was then challenged by an organization of public and private employers, resulting in the passage of a law that is making it harder for injured employees to get workers’ compensation benefits. Read on to hear Charlotte workers’ compensation lawyers explain how the change affects injured workers in North Carolina.
Most employers in North Carolina are required to provide workers’ compensation to employees, like Wilkes, who are injured while performing their job duties. If an injury occurs in the “course and scope” of an employee’s job – for example, while the employee is driving to or from a work site in a company vehicle – the injury is generally covered, provided it was not intentionally self-inflicted.
The Court’s ruling in Wilkes v. City of Greenville reinforced this concept, holding that employers are responsible for compensating not only immediate injuries like bone fractures, but also injuries that develop later, provided such injuries were caused by the work-related accident. This ruling was a victory for workers for two reasons:
However, unfortunately for injured workers, the Court’s decision was quickly challenged by a coalition of public and private employer organizations, including the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the N.C. League of Municipalities, the N.C. Chamber, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.
These and other bodies sought a “legislative fix” to the ruling, claiming it would increase their costs by over $18 million. Gary Salamido, lobbyist for the N.C. Chamber, stated that “under the Wilkes decision, if an employer accepts a claim, they’re accepting a claim for every other condition unless they can prove it’s not related,” adding that employers would need to “exercise[e] a whole lot of caution before they accept a claim,” such as “asking for an additional medical examination.”
Seeking to reverse the ruling’s consequences for employers, the coalition turned to state legislators for support – and received it. On Wednesday, June 28, the N.C. Senate voted unanimously in favor of a bill (“House Bill 26”) that would counteract the Court’s decision by placing the burden of proof back on employees’ shoulders, requiring employees to prove that late-developing injuries were work-related.
The following day, the bill earned unanimous support from the N.C. House, and on July 20, 2017, Governor Roy Cooper signed it into law, amending the Workers’ Compensation Act. At the core of the updated law is the following provision:
“[I]t is the intent of the General Assembly to clarify, in response to Wilkes v. City of Greenville, that an injury not identified in an award [of workers’ compensation benefits]… is not presumed to be causally related to the compensable injury…”
In other words, there will no longer be a presumption that late-developing injuries or other conditions are related to the employee’s work accident, whereas in the past following Wilkes v. City of Greenville, employees were entitled to such a presumption. Ultimately, the law makes it harder for employees to obtain workers’ compensation for slow-developing injuries, because it raises the bar for proving that an injury should be deemed work-related. If the employee cannot prove that a late-diagnosis injury is work-related – for example, anxiety or tinnitus that develops months after a work-related auto accident – the employee cannot receive workers’ compensation for that injury.
The law took effect when it was passed, meaning all past and current workers’ compensation claims are impacted.
There can be many obstacles on the path toward getting a claim approved for workers’ compensation benefits. The passage of House Bill 26 has, unfortunately, made the process even harder.
Now more than ever, it is critical to be represented by an aggressive and effective Charlotte workers’ compensation attorney following a work-related injury. To confidentially discuss a workers’ compensation claim in a free legal consultation with an experienced attorney for injured workers in North Carolina, call the Ramsay Law Firm at (877) 576-5500.