Safety and OSHA News

Can injured worker turn down light-duty job and still get comp?

A doctor cleared an injured worker for a specific light-duty job. The worker didn’t think she could do the offered job and didn’t show up for work. Did a court allow her to continue to receive workers’ comp benefits?

Paulette Freeman suffered low back strain, a fractured big toe and bruises while at work. Later, she was also diagnosed with a herniated disc.

A doctor who examined Freeman said she was capable of driving and returning to work in a light-duty, non-physical capacity. The doctor reviewed the light-duty position, that of “building substitute teacher,” and said she was capable of that job.

The job didn’t involve lifting, bending or carrying. The school is wheelchair accessible, and there would be no problem with Freeman sitting, standing or changing her position as needed.

However, Freeman said she had stopped driving because of spasms in her legs and couldn’t drive to the school. She also said pain all over her body interfered with her ability to think and focus.

And she presented testimony from another doctor who said she could not do the substitute teacher job.

A workers’ comp judge and then the workers’ comp appeals board both ruled in favor of the employer, saying that after Freeman didn’t report for her light-duty job, her benefits could be suspended. Freeman appealed once again to a state court.

The court agreed with the previous two rulings, that Freeman should no longer receive workers’ comp benefits after she failed to report to the light-duty job. The judges agreed with the workers’ comp judge that Freeman’s testimony lacked credibility because she changed her story more than once about a previous injury she suffered 20 years before the workplace incident.

The court also found the testimony of the doctor who said Freeman could go back to work more credible than that from the doctor who said she could not.

The judges also said Freeman’s demeanor conflicted with her testimony that her pain affected her ability to think and focus.

In this case, the employer took several steps to help its case:

  • It offered the employee a light-duty job
  • Details about the demands of the job were spelled out, and
  • The employer took the specifics of the job to a doctor who had treated the injured employee and got an opinion that she was able to perform the necessary tasks for the position.

And it’s probably not a good idea for injured workers who want to remain on workers’ comp to claim they can’t think or focus and then appear to be perfectly able to do so in court.

Cite: Freeman v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Board, Commonwealth Court of PA, No. 1278 C.D. 2009, 2/1/10.

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  • John

    Smart, commonsense decision! Maybe there’s hope, yet.

  • Jeffrey

    While this ruling is correct, I had a similar case where the employee doctor shopped until she found a doctor who said she could not return to light duty. I terminated her but she was able to get unemployment.

  • Linda

    This is a great story with a moral. Tell the truth the first time or it could bite you in the back later.
    I feel bad for Ms Freeman, I am sure she had real serious pain, but I agree with the decision based on the fact that she wasn’t honest and she simply didn’t show up for light duty.

  • http://Safety/NewsAlert Kenny

    Believe me, sometimes the Doctors just get it wrong.
    My mother was injured in a Car Accident one time, and I saw the pain that she was in, yet it
    seemed that the doctors could not understand the pain that she was under. The doctors would say
    that she was fine. The doctors seemed to believe that she was lying about the pain that she was having. I would see my mother cry at night, yet the doctors say that she is fine. I do want companies to be protected from people that may be abusing the system, but please don’t always believe that the Docters know what they are doing. Some times, they are just protecting the insurance companies, or just looking out for whom is paying the bills. They do get it wrong at times.

  • Aïda

    I can understand the employee not being able to drive if she fractured her big toe. Even with an automatic, that can hurt too much to be a safe driver. When I’ve had employees break their foot, I’ve picked them up every day to go to work in a light duty position. They realized they make more in a light duty job than they would on worker’s comp.

    However, if she would have just stuck to the assertion that she was in too much pain, and not claim that she couldn’t focus on the work, then she would have had a better opportunity to be taken seriously on the level of pain. Herniated discs can hurt for years if you don’t have them operated on.

  • Lori

    I think the court made a perfect observation in this case. If she is able to fight for her benefits, she does have the ability to focus and think. We just had a guy out for Tennis Elbow. On Workers comp! We interviewed the personnel at the location he stated it happened and found no witnesses to confirm his injury. But workers comp paid. I’ve had Tennis Elbow myself. It’s from a repetitive movement. It doesn’t all of a sudden appear, but that was his diagnosis.
    A no show to work is job abandonment.

  • Marvin Bollinger

    Take the free money and free food away and watch how quickly they find a job!!!!

  • Paul Evans

    Our insurance carrier suggested having (alleged) injured workers spend some time at a local soup kitchen… the time is paid for and can be claimed as a charitable contribution… workers tend to come back quickly…