A United Parcel Service Inc. driver who hurt his back while tying his shoe should receive workers compensation benefits, the Idaho Supreme Court has ruled.
Michael Vawter began working as a UPS delivery driver in 1983. In December 2009, he stooped to tie his boot laces while waiting for his truck to warm up at the start of his shift at a facility in Cascade, Idaho, and immediately felt “a pop and pain” in his lower back, according to court records.
He was diagnosed with a herniated disc and symptoms of cauda equina syndrome, a neurological condition that affects the lower spine, records show. He filed for workers comp benefits in March 2010, claiming that his back injury arose out of and in the course of his work at UPS.
The Atlanta-based package delivery company denied Mr. Vawter's claim, contending in part that his injury was not work-related. However, a referee with the Idaho Industrial Commission ruled that Mr. Vawter's injury was compensable, and that he should receive temporary total disability benefits and $149,000 in medical expenses, according to court records.
UPS, which did not concede liability for the case, sought to have part of his comp benefits paid by Idaho's Industrial Special Indemnity Fund, records show. The fund pays benefits to workers with pre-existing conditions who become totally and permanently disabled at work.
The Idaho Industrial Commission found that Mr. Vawter had a previous physical impairment from a 1990 lower-back injury, records show. However, UPS was not allowed to assert Mr. Vawter had a pre-existing condition because a UPS-appointed doctor found that he had no permanent impairment after a 1991 exam. The commission ruled that UPS was solely responsible to pay benefits to Mr. Vawter.
In its unanimous ruling last Friday, the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed those earlier decisions. The court found that worker injuries are presumed to arise from their employment when an accident occurs on an employer's premises.
Footwear requirement a factor
The state high court also noted that UPS requires employees to have their shoes tied or secured under a policy that specifies “no loose or dangling parts” on employee footwear.
“Vawter tied his shoes for UPS' benefit, and the accident causing his injury therefore arose out of his employment,” the Idaho high court ruled.
The court also found that the Idaho fund is not liable for Mr. Vawter's benefits because UPS assumed Mr. Vawter had no permanent impairment rating following the 1991 exam “to minimize its exposure for the payment” of workers comp benefits in his 1990 accident.
“Because of its position in 1991, UPS avoided paying benefits to Vawter,” the court ruled. “Now, UPS takes the opposite position to again avoid making payments.”
In addition to affirming benefits previously awarded to Mr. Vawter, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that UPS should pay an additional $24,627 in medical costs that he accrued between the date of his 2009 injury and the first hearing with the Idaho Industrial Commission.