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Wyoming high court rules well operator’s head injury compensable

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A worker suffered a compensable head injury while engaged in work-related activities and is entitled to workers comp benefits, according to a decision by the Supreme Court of Wyoming.

Richard Williams suffered a head injury while working as a well operator in June 2014 and applied for workers comp benefits, according to the decision released Monday. In Mr. Williams' version of events, a flash fire startled him and caused him to fall backward and strike his head. Because the building in which Mr. Williams was working when he suffered his injury showed no signs of a recent fire, the Wyoming Workers Compensation Division in July 2014 determined that his injury did not arise out of and in the course of his employment and denied benefits, according to the ruling.

The Office of Administrative Hearings upheld the denial of benefits in November 2015 based on its finding that Mr. Williams and his version of events lacked credibility, but a district court concluded that the office’s decision was contrary to overwhelming medical evidence that Mr. Williams injured his head while engaged in work-related activities and reversed the denial, a decision upheld by the state Supreme Court.

“Mr. Williams presented evidence that raised a presumption that he suffered a work-related injury,” the court said in its ruling. “In response, the division offered no evidence that Mr. Williams was injured somewhere other than on the work premises, no evidence that Mr. Williams was not engaged in work activities, no evidence that Mr. Williams did not fall, and no evidence that he did not suffer a head injury. In short, the division's evidence rebutted Mr. Williams' claim that a fire occurred, but it did not rebut the presumption that Mr. Williams suffered a head injury that arose out of his work. The (office) erred in ruling otherwise.”

“I think the Supreme Court reached the correct decision, and the district court, which was affirmed, spent a good deal of time looking at the case,” said Larry Jones, a shareholder with Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardin P.C. based in Cody, Wyoming, who represented Mr. Williams in his appeal. “It was a difficult case, but both courts recognized that Mr. Williams suffered a significant injury while at work.”

In Wyoming, the burden is on the employee to prove that he or she suffered a work-related injury, but there is a presumption that if the injury occurs on the employer’s premises and during work hours that it is compensable and the burden shifts to the division to prove otherwise, Mr. Jones said.

The decision “didn’t really establish any new principles, but it certainly brought that presumption back into the forefront,” he said. “To the extent that assists injured workers, from my position, that’s a positive.”

Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael, who argued the case for the state, declined to comment.