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Worker's Compensation Laws Limited in Protecting Injured Workers

NC's worker's compensation laws are designed to provide medical care necessary to help injured workers heal and return to work. The law requires employers to pay for this medical care when one of their employees is injured on the job. Unfortunately, a 2014 change to the workers compensation rules has allowed less ethical employers to choose profits over the health of injured workers. The N.C. Court of Appeals has recently ruled that when an employer fails to provide health care and profits by doing so, the courts are limited to stop the practice.

In 1999, Michelle Kish was working as a nurse for Frye Medical Center in Hickory, NC. She suffered an accident on the job when she herniated her back while lifting a patient. The herniated disc became infected, which then resulted in a blood infection. The injury proved devastating, and Michelle required extensive medical care, including expensive antibiotic prescriptions.

Frye Medical Center was required by NC's Worker's Compensation Act to pay for this medical care. Unfortunately, they refused to do so. Michelle took the employer before a worker's compensation judge who ordered them to pay for the medical care. Frye Medical defied the order of the worker's compensation judge, and refused to pay for approximately $26,000 in prescriptions for their injured worker. Michelle was unable to obtain these prescriptions which resulted in her condition worsening and causing her significant pain.

Michelle took the matter back to the worker's compensation judges, who ruled that although her employer had violated both the law and their order, there was little they could do other than assess costs and fees against them. This assessment came to just over $10,000. Meanwhile, the employer saved $26,000 by breaking the law, for a net savings of $16,000. The injured worker appealed her case to the N.C. Court of Appeals, arguing that allowing the employer to come out better off by breaking the law, it would encourage similar conduct in the future.

The N.C. Court of Appeals was sympathetic to the injured worker and noted that her employer showed a "complete lack of regard for the severity" of her condition, they were powerless to do more. The Court cited a 2014 change in worker's compensation rules that restricted their ability to fine employers for breaking the law. The Court ruled, "The Industrial Commission no longer has general authority to assess other monetary penalties or sanctions against a party." As a result, the employer was allowed to keep the money it saved by breaking the law.

This decision will likely not go unnoticed by employers and workers compensation insurance companies. If an injured worker needs expensive medical care, the employer may decide that it would be cheaper to defy the law than pay to make the injured worker better. If they do, more injured workers could experience illegal refusals for health care despite what the law might say.

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