Workers' Compensation Developments 2010-2012

JurisdictionConnecticut,United States
Publication year2021
CitationVol. 86 Pg. 229
Pages229
Connecticut Bar Journal
Volume 86.

86 CBJ 229. WORKERS' COMPENSATION DEVELOPMENTS 2010-2012

Connecticut Bar Journal
Volume 86, No. 3, Pg. 229
September 2012

WORKERS' COMPENSATION DEVELOPMENTS 2010-2012

By Robert J. Enright and John P. Clarkson(fn*)

This article analyzes appellate opinions from roughly mid-2010 forward, through the end of the year 2011, with some references to the first half of 2012. We discuss most, but not all, opinions from the Connecticut Supreme Court and Appellate Court that deal with workers' compensation issues, with a handful omitted out of considerations of space. We focus on decisions of greatest interest to the greatest number of practitioners. Analysis of the Compensation Review Board (board) decisions during the interval in question lies outside the scope of this article. The writers have tried to maintain a balanced perspective, while taking the liberty of occasionally adding their own idiosyncratic commentary.

I. SCOPE OF THE ACT-EXCLUSIVITY/MOTOR VEHICLE EXCEPTION-CONFLICT OF LAWS

Connecticut's workers' compensation statute is codified at Chapter 568 of Title 31 of the General Statutes, and it is about to reach-and perhaps even celebrate-the one hundredth anniversary of its enactment.(fn1) The Act divested the civil justice system of jurisdiction over liability for injuries that arose out of and in the course of employment. Recourse to the Workers' Compensation Commission (Commission) became a simplified, accelerated, exclusive adjudicative remedy for injured workers that shields employers from almost (but not quite) all civil liability for occupational injuries.

There are several exceptions to the Act, however.

A. Exclusivity/Motor Vehicle Exception

One exception requires the plaintiff to prove that the employer believed that its conduct was substantially certain to cause the employee harm.(fn2) Over the years the Appellate Court has upheld the granting of summary judgment in favor of the employer on such claims.(fn3) In Motzer v. Haberli(fn4) the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld judgment for the employer by way of directed verdict, where the employer had violated safety regulations and failed satisfactorily to train the plaintiff in the use of power tools.(fn5) The plaintiff failed to prove, however, that the employer knew or believed that injury was substantially certain to occur as a result of this misconduct.(fn6) The Act's exclusivity provision has been applied to shield an insurer,(fn7) a third-party administrator,(fn8) and a self-insured employer(fn9) from civil liability for bad faith handling of a workers' compensation claim. Recently, the Appellate Court extended the exclusive remedy doctrine to cover an "independent third party," in D'Amico v. ACE Financial Solutions.(fn10) In D'Amico the plaintiff was a correction officer whose claim for injuries sustained while attempting to restrain an inmate was transferred to an "independent third party" for further administration pursuant to General Statutes Section 4a-25a.(fn11) The Appellate Court regarded any distinction between third party administrator and "independent third party" as academic and extended the exclusive remedy accordingly.(fn12)

Generally speaking, exclusivity shields co-employees from tort liability to each other. There are, of course, exceptions, one being the "motor vehicle" exception, where injury results from a co-employee's negligent operation of a motor vehicle.(fn13) From time to time, the Appellate Court reaches the issue of what constitutes operation of a motor vehicle. In Arias v. Geisinger(fn14) the defendant was driving a yard truck(fn15) that towed a trailer, upon which was mounted a cargo container. During operation a container door opened and dislodged a beam which fell and inflicted serious injuries. The Appellate Court concluded that the defendant, by driving the yard truck that towed the trailer, was operating a motor vehicle-the trailer, in part because the trailer was suitable for operation on a highway.(fn16) Although the parties stipulated that the yard truck itself was not a motor vehicle as defined by General Statutes Section 14-1, it supplied "nonmuscular power" to the trailer, which was suitable for highway use, thereby qualifying the trailer as a motor vehicle under that statute.(fn17)

B. Conflict Or Choice Of Laws

Occasionally the appellate tribunals must deal with the interplay of the Act and the law, whether workers' compensation or tort, of contiguous states. The rule now for invocation of jurisdiction of the Commission in Connecticut is this: "Whether Connecticut's relationship or interest is sufficiently significant to warrant an award of benefits, and that criterion is satisfied either when Connecticut is (1) the place of the injury, or (2) the place of the employment contract or (3) the place of the employment relationship."(fn18) In Healey v. Hawkeye Construction,(fn19) the Appellate Court upheld Connecticut jurisdiction over an injury that arose from work in Florida, where claimant, a state resident, took a telephone call at home from his union hall that led him to call a prospective employer in New York who sent him to Florida.(fn20) The Appellate Court held that the employment contract was formed in Connecticut, because claimant expressed his acceptance of the offer of employment at his Connecticut home.(fn21)

In Hodgate v. Ferraro,(fn22) an employee of a Massachusetts corporation died in a Connecticut car accident while riding as a passenger in a car driven by a co-employee. The case required a choice-of-law determination between Connecticut's exclusive remedy statutes, which provide a motor vehicle exception, and the Massachusetts exclusive remedy law, which contains no such exception. The Appellate Court concluded that Massachusetts workers' compensation law applied, because the employment relationship originated there and was primarily located there; no work was performed in Connecticut.(fn23) Indeed, Connecticut had no ties to any person or party in the case; the only Connecticut connection amounted to the fact that the accident happened to have occurred in Connecticut.(fn24)

II. JURISDICTIONAL ISSUES, IN GENERAL, APPELLATE AND OTHERWISE-AUTHORITY OF THE COMMISSIONER

These broad and occasionally intertwined topics continue to generate quite an array of issues. Access to the forum pivots on satisfaction of jurisdictional criteria, and the appellate trend favors a hard look at whether those criteria have been met. Recent decisions have viewed legal "injury" and the Act's statutes of limitation through the jurisdiction-al prism and also focused on the limits of authority of the commissioner.

A.Jurisdiction And Timely Assertion Of "Injury"

In Veilleux v. Complete Interior Systems, Inc.,(fn25) the Connecticut Supreme Court emphasized that "injury" was jurisdictional and that the commissioner must decide whether the claimed injury "more closely resembles" accidental injury or occupational disease.(fn26) Furthermore, the commissioner must specifically find whether the alleged "repetitive trauma" injury in Veilleux more closely resembled accidental injury or occupational disease.(fn27) That matters: The limitations period for accidental injury is one year, while the limitations period for occupational disease is three years, and Mr. Veilleux's claim will not survive, on remand, if the commissioner decides that the alleged injury, namely cervical myelopathy, more closely resembles accidental injury, not occupational disease.(fn28) Such a determination is a jurisdictional sine qua non.(fn29)

B.Timing Of Challenge To Jurisdiction-Trial Level- General Statutes Section 31-315

Most practitioners recognize Castro v. Viera(fn30) as standing for the proposition that a challenge to subject matter jurisdiction can be made at any time.(fn31) That remains true, but there are limits. In Jones v. Redding(fn32) the town voluntarily accepted a claimant's request for hypertension benefits under General Statutes Section 7-433c, commonly known as the Heart and Hypertension Act. Years later, both parties recognized that they had mistakenly assumed that claimant qualified for benefits thereunder. He did not, because he was not a member of a "paid municipal police department"; Redding did not have one. The town sought to revoke the agreement, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, because General Statutes Section 7-433c could not apply. It argued, as well, that a recent Connecticut Supreme Court case, favorable to its legal position,(fn33) represented a "changed condition of fact" that enabled it to invoke General Statutes Section 31-315 to "modify" the award out of existence.(fn34) The Court held that the parties' failure to recognize the inapplicability of General Statutes Section 7-433c amounted to "a mistake of law" that did not come within the ambit of General Statutes Section 31-315.(fn35) The Court cast the issue not in terms of the ramifications of an unanticipated change in law-that would not have mattered anyway under General Statutes Section 31-315- but a mutual mistake of law for which both parties shared the blame.(fn36) The Court distinguished Castro, noting, for example, that Castro focused on the employer/employee relationship in the context of statutory preclusion, at the threshold of proceedings before the commissioner, while Jones dealt with applicability of General Statutes Section 31-315, years after approval of the agreement.(fn37)

C. Timing Of Challenge To Jurisdiction-Appellate Level

Practitioners have seen, so far, the scrutiny that the appellate tribunals have given to satisfaction of jurisdiction-al criteria as a means of access to relief in the forum. Jurisdiction looms large as an issue, as well, at the appellate level. In Stec v. Raymark Industries, Inc.,(fn38) the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the twenty-day time limit under General Statutes Section 31-301(a)...

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