A manager told an employee he’d “shave her dog, sugar her gas tank and burn her house down.” The boss thought the employee was gossiping to his wife about an alleged improper relationship. How did all this turn into a workers’ comp case?
Jo Dean Nuchols worked as a secretary for Bount County, TN, Sheriff James Berrong for 12 years.
Sheriff Berrong believed Nuchols had implied to his wife during a phone conversation that the sheriff had been involved in an inappropriate relationship with a female department employee.
On May 30, 2012, Berrong, in front of two other employees, confronted Nuchols and made the dog/sugar/fire threat. County employees said this was a phrase the Sheriff used frequently.
Nuchols perceived the Sheriff’s statement to be a threat. She had been involved in a house fire when she was younger and was terrified by the experience.
The night of the meeting, Nuchols contacted an attorney. The next day she went to her primary care physician who said she was very agitated and recommended she receive in-patient hospital treatment. She was hospitalized for three days.
A psychologist and a psychiatrist both diagnosed Nuchols with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Nuchols never worked again – not for the sheriff or anyone else.
She sued for workers’ compensation benefits about a year after the incident.
The case went to trial, and the court threw out Nuchols’ claim, saying she failed to give her employer proper notice of her workplace injury. Tennessee workers’ comp law says:
No compensation shall be payable under this chapter, unless written notice is given the employer within thirty (30) days.
Nuchols appealed the trial court’s decision. Her appeal was heard by the workers’ comp appeals panel of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The former employee offered five instances in which she claimed she gave proper notice of her PTSD injury to her employer.
Nuchols said a phone conversation she had with the sheriff the morning after their meeting satisfied the notice requirement. Nuchols recorded the conversation. The recording shows she told the sheriff she was sick and wasn’t coming into work.
The appeals panel found the phone conversation clearly conveyed Nuchols was ill and wouldn’t be able to work that day. However, the call fell short of claiming she was injured as a result of the meeting on the previous day.
We won’t go into details on the other four instances. In each case, the appeals panel agreed with the trial court that the instances all fell short of giving notice about a workplace injury. Not one of the instances involved written notice.
So the appeals court allowed the trial court’s decision to stand.
You might be wondering if the sheriff’s threat amounted to a compensable injury (PTSD) if the case hadn’t been thrown out because the lack of notice.
The trial court made an alternative finding that Nuchols was permanently and totally disabled as a result of the incident. This means that, had it not been for the technicality involving notice of the injury, Nuchols would have received workers’ comp benefits.
What do you think about the ruling? Let us know in the comments.
(Jo Dean Nuchols v. Bount County, Tennessee, Supreme Court of TN Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel, No. E2013-00574-SC-WCM-WC, 9/19/14)