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'At-will' worker who delayed reporting injury can't fight firing

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A worker who was fired from his job for waiting to properly report a work injury can’t move forward with a wrongful termination lawsuit against his employer, a Mississippi appellate court ruled Tuesday.

Bobby Lott worked in the upholstery department for Corinth, Mississippi-based furniture maker Corinthian Inc., court records show. He was struck in the right eye in January 2010 when an ottoman leg ricocheted while he was trying to secure it onto a piece of furniture.

Mr. Lott asked two nearby coworkers if his eye was injured, records show. He said he also advised another employee, who he thought was a supervisor, of the injury shortly afterward.

However, Corinthian claimed in court that the “supervisor” was actually a “floater on the production line,” and that Mr. Lott did not inform his true supervisor of the accident. Corinthian’s employee handbook — which Mr. Lott received and signed a copy of when he started work in 2008 — states that employees must report injuries to their supervisor on the day that an accident occurred, and that failure to do so is grounds for termination.

Two days after being hit with the furniture leg, Mr. Lott awakened with pain and vision loss in his right eye, and he reported his symptoms to his correct supervisor, records show.

Two doctors appointed by Corinthian’s third-party administrator diagnosed Mr. Lott with a traumatic cataract, traumatic iritis, and a vitreal bleed to his right eye, records show. One of the doctors restricted Mr. Lott to performing desk work until inflammation in his eye subsided and he could undergo surgery to repair the damage.

Corinthian terminated Mr. Lott soon afterward, stating that Mr. Lott failed to follow proper procedures for reporting a work-related injury. In February 2010, Mr. Lott retained a lawyer and filed a claim for workers compensation benefits against Corinthian.

Corinthian denied benefits to Mr. Lott, arguing in court records that there were no eyewitnesses to his accident, that he had a pre-existing eye condition that predated his alleged work injury and that an investigation did not support his allegations. Additionally, the company said it was unable to properly investigate Mr. Lott’s claim because he refused to sign a medical-release authorization.

Mr. Lott signed the authorization in March 2010, and Corinthian found medical records stating that the furniture leg accident “most likely ... exacerbated a pre-existing condition,” filings show. Based on that finding, Corinthian began paying temporary total disability workers comp benefits to Mr. Lott for the current time period, as well as retroactively to the day of his accident.

Mr. Lott moved forward with claims that Corinthian improperly terminated him and failed to properly investigate his claim, causing him pain and suffering since he could not afford eye surgery until he received comp benefits, records show.

An administrative judge with the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission denied Mr. Lott’s claim, finding that Corinthian should pay penalties and interest for a delay in benefit payments to Mr. Lott, but ruling that the company did not act in bad faith. Mr. Lott appealed, but the Prentiss County, Mississippi, Circuit Court upheld the lower ruling.

The Mississippi Court of Appeals also denied Mr. Lott’s claims in a 9-0 ruling on Tuesday. The court said that Mr. Lott was an at-will employee for Corinthian and that he had consented to Corinthian’s policies on injury reports when he received and signed the employee handbook.

Additionally, the appellate court said work records showed that Mr. Lott listed the name of his correct supervisor on various job forms, and therefore should have known whom to report his work injury.

The court also found that Corinthian did not act in bad faith in delaying Mr. Lott’s benefit payments because he delayed signing the medical release form that allowed Corinthian’s investigation to move forward.

It “was little more than a month between the time (Corinthian) received the authorization and the issuance of the first benefit check,” the ruling reads. “During that month, the record indicates that (Corinthian) gathered medical information, spoke with Lott’s medical providers, and requested and awaited receipt of the (independent medical evaluation) report. We find these actions and the time frame for the actions to be a reasonable course of investigation.”