Is a new batch of claims coming our way? With the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 arising in Wake County, North Carolina this week and with additional cases possible across the state, claims adjusters should prepare for associated workers’ compensation claims.
At-risk work environments
If Coronavirus spreads in North Carolina, we may see an increase in workers’ compensation claims from alleged occupational exposure. Not surprisingly, the most likely claims are among members of medical and care fields, such as workers in hospitals, nursing and rehabilitation facilities, medical laboratories, and doctor’s offices. Other places of concern include facilities regularly hosting large numbers of members of the public, such as:
- Major event locales such as sporting arenas and concert venues
- Public schools
- Transportation stations and hubs
- Theme parks
- Museums and theaters
- Large government offices
- Shopping malls and major retailers
Insurers and administrators handling workers’ compensation claims on behalf of such employers may consider advising risk management to implement steps to minimize risk of contagion and to create guidelines reducing employee exposure. Steps include proactively preventing contamination by distributing work remotely, planning for sustained workflow interruption, and quelling employee concerns regarding transportation issues and possible payroll delays.
While most major employers have contingency plans for periods of emergency shutdowns, this is a great time for workers’ compensation carriers to remind insureds to review and update their handbooks and emergency policies. Since disgruntled employees – as opposed to happy ones – are more apt to file frivolous claims, prudence may pay off. Workers who believe that their employer took the risks seriously and assigned top priority to their health and safety may be less likely to file claims.
Burden of Proof
Flu-like viruses such as Coronavirus (unlike diseases like asbestosis or silicosis) are not “listed” occupational diseases under section 97-53 of the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act. So how would an infected worker pursue a workers’ compensation claim? Many non-listed diseases are still compensable, albeit somewhat more difficult to prosecute. For a non-listed disease like Coronavirus, the worker must prove both that 1) their employment caused or substantially contributed to their diagnosed condition and 2) that their employment placed them at an increased risk as compared to the general public for developing the condition. Because of that second prong, it is especially important that North Carolina employers create an environment where workers’ risk of exposure does not increase when they show up for work.
Because many “general public” North Carolinians are already taking steps to decrease risk, such as canceling international travel and refraining from hand-to-hand contact, employers would be wise to encourage employees to follow suit. Although it is nearly impossible to safeguard all employees from infection, if workers do get sick and file claims, proactive employers may have an advantage. A detailed list of early safety measures can add meat to the Form 61 Denial of Liability and support a “second prong” defense that the workers were no more at risk than the general public.
If Coronavirus becomes widespread in North Carolina, an uptick in occupational disease claims may be on the horizon. Contact the workers’ compensation attorneys at Anders Newton at 919-516-8400 if you have questions about preventing or handling Coronavirus occupational disease claims.
Disclaimer: The information on the blog is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Cases referenced do not represent the law firm’s entire record. Each case is unique and must be evaluated on its own merits. The outcome of a particular case cannot be based on past results.