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A Tennessee high school vocational teacher can’t sue his employer for $21 million over injuries he claims he suffered due to mold exposure because of the exclusive remedy provision of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Law, an appellate court ruled Wednesday.
Michael Upchurch alleged that mold contamination at Sullivan North High School in Kingsport, Tennessee, and his supervisors’ denial that it existed “caused him to suffer long-term detrimental health effects and emotional distress,” according to documents in Michael Kevin Upchurch v. Sullivan County Department of Education, filed in the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in Knoxville.
In seeking emergency medical treatment in 2018 he “was diagnosed with a compromised immune system, congestion around his heart, and hyperinflated lungs from either a fungal or viral infection,” documents state. The school reported that mold tests indicated no contamination in the building, according to documents.
After a leave from work, he returned to inform his supervisor of a “toxic black mold infestation” and said he was “afraid to file a (workers compensation) claim because (he) was in fear of being blacklisted.” During that meeting, Mr. Upchurch testified that he recalled that maintenance workers “destroying evidence and attempting to cover up any visible signs of the toxic black mold infestation,” documents state.
Later that month, Mr. Upchurch took a ceiling tile from his classroom to Southeastern Environmental Microbiology Laboratories in Greenville, South Carolina, which determined it had “medium levels of toxic black mold,” documents state.
Mr. Upchurch sued the Sullivan County Department of Education, alleging its “conduct was ‘outrageous and intentional from the outset’ and ‘repugnant and beyond comprehension as acceptable in any civilized society.’”
A trial court in 2019 dismissed the teacher's claims, ruling that the state’s exclusive remedy barred the lawsuit.
The appeals court affirmed, writing that “taking the complaint's allegations as true, as we must, we conclude that the injuries alleged by Upchurch arose out of and during the course and scope of his employment with SCDE” and agreed that “the Workers' Compensation Law provides the exclusive remedy for his injuries and precludes him from seeking compensation under tort law.”