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Employers may seek injured workers' health information from doctors: Supreme Court

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Employers may seek health information from an injured worker's treating physician without the employee or their attorney present, Georgia's Supreme Court ruled Monday in a workers compensation case.

The case of Arby's Restaurant Group Inc. et al. v. McRae overturns an appeals court's 2011 ruling that held an employees is not required to authorize such communications in order to receive workers comp benefits.

The case involved Laura McRae, who suffered third-degree burns to her esophagus after mistakenly drinking lye left in a break room cup in 2006.

Arby's paid workers comp benefits and, as part of the claim, Ms. McRae signed a form authorizing the release of her medical information, court records state.

After Ms. McRae's doctor concluded she had reached maximum medical improvement and had incurred a 65% permanent partial disability impairment, Arby's counsel attempted to arrange an ex parte meeting with the doctor. But the doctor refused to meet without Ms. McRae or her attorney present.

The employer's counsel filed a motion seeking an order from the Georgia State Board of Workers' Compensation compelling Ms. McRae to sign an authorization for the doctor to meet with the Arby's counsel. An administrative law judge granted Arby's motion and removed the claimant's request for a hearing until she signed.

A trial court upheld, but the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed, finding that Georgia law does not support a claim that an employer is entitled to engage in ex parte communications with a treating physician.

But on Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court said the appellate court erred.

“We believe a complete prohibition on all ex parte communications would be inconsistent with the policy favoring full disclosure in workers compensation cases, as well as the goal of our workers compensation statute of providing equal access to relevant information within an efficient and streamlined proceeding so as not to delay the payment of benefits to an injured employee,” the high court found.