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High court upholds denial of benefits to poultry worker with COVID

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covid litigation

The Delaware Supreme Court Monday upheld a denial of benefits to a poultry plant worker for his occupational disease claim based on a COVID-19 infection.

Carl Fowler was working the night shift at Perdue Inc. in March 2020 when a coworker was sent home exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, according to Fowler v. Perdue Inc.

Mr. Fowler later went to the emergency room, tested positive for COVID-19 and spent more than a month in the hospital.

His doctor testified in November 2020 that Mr. Fowler was substantially debilitated and unable to return to work. He further said it was likely Mr. Fowler contracted COVID-19 at work.

Another doctor examined Mr. Fowler on behalf of Perdue and said he could not function in a work environment. The doctor also concluded that Mr. Fowler acquired COVID-19 at work, most likely in a group environment such as the cafeteria.

The Delaware Industrial Accident Board denied his workers compensation claim, finding that he had not met his burden of showing he contracted COVID-19 at work.

A superior court judge reversed and remanded the case, finding that the IAB’s decision was not based on substantial evidence in the record.

The board held another hearing and took additional testimony. It then found that Mr. Fowler met his burden of proving it was likely he contracted COVID-19 in the cafeteria at Perdue, but he did not prove that it was a compensable occupational disease. A superior court judge affirmed that decision.

The Delaware Supreme Court said its precedent required Mr. Fowler to “establish by substantial competent evidence” that his COVID-19 infection “resulted from the peculiar nature of” his employment to establish a compensable occupational disease.

Mr. Purdue’s doctor testified that contracting COVID-19 in the lunchroom of Perdue was no different than contracting it at a nonwork environment such as a wedding, funeral, college cafeteria, restaurant or bar, the court said.

“A claimant cannot succeed merely by establishing that he contracted COVID-19 at his employment,” the court said. “Being an essential worker in Perdue’s plant (including its crowded cafeteria) during the pandemic is not enough to establish this link.”

WorkCompCentral is a sister publication of Business Insurance. More stories here.