Personal Injury & Worker's Comp

Worker's Compensation Insurance Coverage For Farmers

November 15, 2013

Thomas Christenson

If your hired farm laborer looks like an employee, works like an employee, gets paid like an employee, you've probably got an employee.

Farmers sometimes hire on farmhands or laborers when their operations grow. However, busy farmers may not consider the potential need for workers' compensation insurance coverage until someone gets hurt and medical bills, disability payments and other forms of compensation must be paid. Some may be surprised especially if the farmer hasn't needed to carry worker's compensation coverage in the past because only family members were working on the farm.

When things begin to change in your farm operation, review your insurance policies. A farm liability insurance policy will not cover injuries to a farm laborer who meets the Minnesota Workers' Compensation statutory definition of "employee." If a farm laborer sustains a work-related injury and the farmer has no Worker's Compensation coverage, the Minnesota Department of Labor & Industry (Special Compensation Fund) ("MN DOLI - SCF") may pay the workers' compensation benefits for the injured laborer and seek reimbursement directly from the farmer. The MN-DOLI & SCF may also seek to impose penalties on the farmer for failure to have workers' compensation insurance in place at the time the employee was injured. Minnesota statutes require qualified employers to purchase worker's compensation insurance coverage for their employees. Even a farmer is considered a qualified employer if the farming operation meets certain criteria.

If all employees on a farm earn less than $8,000 per calendar year, the Minnesota Workers' Compensation scheme doesn't require the farmer to carry worker's compensation insurance. According to Minn. Stat. § 176.041, subd.1(b), the Worker's Compensation Act doesn't apply to persons employed by a "family farm" as defined by Minn. Stat. § 176.011, subd.11(a)(1-2)(2010). However, if a farmer hires farmhands or laborers who earn (in aggregate) more than $8,000 annually, the farmer is required to carry worker's compensation insurance. Essentially, farmers are allowed one year to begin worker's compensation coverage once they employ qualified farm laborers making more than a total of $8,000 in a calendar year.

A recent case involved a family farmer who wanted to cut back his hours on the farm. He hired a farm hand to assist his son in running the crop farming operation. During harvest, a piece of equipment broke down. While driving back to the farm to get another machine, the truck that the farmer, farmer's cousin and the farm hand were riding in lost control and went off the road, causing all three serious injuries. The farmer didn't have worker's compensation insurance in place, and was a workers' compensation claim was brought for medical expenses and damages sustained by the farmhand. In a Worker's Compensation Court of Appeals decision, the WCCA held that the farmer was not required to carry such insurance as it was the first year he had hired a farm worker. The farmer avoided paying penalties and damages that would have been in the six figure range.

No one expects bad things to happen on their family farm, and certainly nobody is happy when they do. Be careful to check whether you need to add worker's compensation insurance coverage when hiring farmhand or laborer. You may avoid unnecessary fees, expenses and penalties imposed by the state.


Minnesota Workers' Compensation Q&A
Test Your Knowledge

October 18, 2013

Thomas ChristensonQuinlivan & Hughes attorney Thomas J. Christenson has more than 30 years of workers' compensation experience. He invites you to test your Minnesota Workers' Compensation Law knowledge below.

What is workers' compensation in Minnesota?

Answer:

Workers' compensation came into existence in 1913. Prior to that date, there was no workers' compensation law in Minnesota. If you were hurt on the job, you had to sue your employer in civil court and prove that the employer was at fault for causing your injury. Since 1913, all you need to establish is that you were hurt in the course and scope of employment and you are entitled to workers' compensation benefits. The benefits are limited to what is provided by the law on the date that you were injured.

What types of injuries are covered under workers' compensation in Minnesota?

Answer:

Physical injuries are covered by workers' compensation in Minnesota. There are several different types of physical injuries that a person can sustain. The first type of injury occurs in a traumatic accident. As an example, if you are carrying a box and fall down and break your leg, it is easy to establish the injury happened at work. Another type of injury is referred to as a Gillette injury. A Gillette injury is one that occurs over a period of time as a result of repetitive work activity. For example, if you are a barrel maker and spend thirty years making barrels and one day your shoulder freezes up but you did not fall down and injury the shoulder on a specific date, you have a compensable injury based upon the repetitive work activity you performed causing the shoulder to lock up. A third type of injury is an occupational disease. Assume that you work around chemicals and later develop lung cancer caused by the chemical exposure. Your lung cancer would be covered by workers' compensation because of the chemical exposure at work which substantially contributed to your developing lung cancer. Consequential injuries are also covered under the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Law. Consequential injuries occur if you have a back injury which causes you to limp resulting in the development of leg pain. In such a circumstance, both your back and leg injury are covered by workers' compensation because the leg pain developed as a consequence of the back injury. Finally, if you sustain an injury while treating for a work-related injury, the injury would also be covered. As an example, if you are treating for a back injury and get into a car accident while going to the doctor to treat for the work-related injury and break your arm, both your back and arm injuries would be covered under the Minnesota Workers' Compensation Act.

Are stress-related claims covered under workers' compensation in Minnesota?

Answer:

Effective October 1, 2013, employees in Minnesota diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) caused by an incident at work will be covered for workers' compensation benefits. The change in law recognized that mental-injuries, injuries without any physical injury are covered. Prior to the change in law, mental injury could result in a compensable claim if it was caused by a physical injury, such as depression caused by a back injury, or if it resulted in a physical injury like a police officer developing an ulcer caused by the stress on the job. The PTSD diagnosis must be made by a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist. Stress caused by work place actions such as discipline, lay-offs or terminations are not covered under the new law.

Who can file a workers' compensation claim in Minnesota?

Answer:

Only employees are entitled to workers' compensation benefits. An employee is someone who works for a business entity or an individual for pay. Certain types of employment situations are not covered. If you are an independent contractor, you are not covered for workers' compensation. If you are a corporate officer, such as a vice president of a corporation, you are not covered unless you have specifically elected to be covered for workers' compensation coverage. Also, if you are a family member working for your mom, dad, brother or uncle, you are not covered unless there is a specific election to cover family members for workers' compensation benefits. Also, if you are farm laborer, you generally are not covered. Volunteers may or may not be covered depending on the specific factual circumstances surrounding their employment.

Can I receive workers' compensation benefits if I re-injury a pre-existing condition?

Answer:

If you injure a pre-existing condition in a work incident, you may be covered by workers' compensation. In order to have a valid workers' compensation, the work injury to the pre-existing condition has to be a substantial contributing factor. In other words, the work injury does not have to be the sole factor or even a primary factor, only a substantial contributing factor. If you have a pre-existing low back condition and while lifting a box at work, develop back pain, workers' compensation should cover the injury because the work activities substantially aggravated your pre-existing back condition.

How do I tell my employer that I was hurt on the job?

Answer:

In Minnesota, injured employee must notify the employer of a work-related injury in a timely manner. The report should be made in writing but in the modern world, notice could be made by email, voicemail or text message. The notice should be made to someone in a supervisory position such as your supervisor or in the human resources department. The notice should include the specific detail of how you were injured. Once you report the incident to your supervisor, the supervisor should advise the appropriate human resources individual, who then should complete a First Report of Injury for forwarding to the workers' compensation insurance carrier. If your employer refuses to file the claim, you should contact the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry and personnel there will assist you in filing the claim.


Supreme Court Decides on Dog Bite Law in Anderson v. Christopherson

Nobember 9, 2012

On September 27, 2009, Gordon Anderson was walking his dog, Tuffy, past Dennis Christopherson's house. As the two walked past the home, Bruno, a dog owned by Mr. Christopherson's son, Neil, picked Tuffy up in his jaws and would not release him. While Anderson was attempting to separate the dogs, he fell and broke his hip.

Anderson brought suit against Dennis and Neil Christopherson under claims of negligence and strict liability pursuant to the dog-owner's liability statute. The district court relied on the holding in Mueller, and determined that in order for the statute to apply, the dog's conduct must be "focused" on the injured party. Accordingly, the district court found that, as a matter of law, Minn. Stat. § 374.22 did not apply because Bruno's focus was on Tuffy, instead of Anderson.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals' Decision
On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals confronted two issues: whether Bruno's exclusive focus on Tuffy at the time of the attack prohibited the application of the dog-owner's liability statute and whether Dennis Christopherson was "harboring" Bruno within the meaning of the law. Anderson v. Christopherson, 802 N.W.2d 832, 834 (Minn. Ct. App. 2011).

Relying partially on the holding in Boitz that the phrase "attacks or injures" means that injuries caused by a dog "outside the scope of a vicious attack" warrants protection under the statute, the Court determined that the dog-owner's liability statute may apply to situations where a dog injures a person who was not the focus of the dog's actions. Id. at 835. The Court based its decision, in part, on the argument that relying on a dog's "focus" introduced a subjective element into the strict liability statute that would warrant an analysis of determining where the dog was directing his or her attention at the time of the attack. Id. at 836. The Court specifically noted that it "disagree[s] with the language in Mueller v. Theis, 512 N.W.2d 907 (Minn. Ct. App. 1994) that arguably added a requirement that the dog must also be "focused" on the injured person in order for the person's injuries to be the direct and immediate result of the dog's conduct." Id. at 837. In addition, the Court noted that the phrase "or injures" in the statute negated the requirement that a dog must always be focused on the injured party. Id. at 836. Rather, by including this phrase in the statute, the Court noted that the legislature intended the law to include a "dog's affirmative but nonattacking behavior which injures a person who is immediately implicated by such nonhostile behavior." Id. (citing Lewellin v. Huber, 465 N.W.2d 62, 64 (Minn. 1991)).

The Court also analyzed whether Christopherson would be relieved of liability because the chain of events between the dog's actions and the injury was too attenuated, as articulated in Lewellin. Id. at 837. The Court held that in this case, the chain of events connecting Bruno's behavior to Anderson's injury was an affirmative act that triggered Anderson's response which, in turn, immediately resulted in his injury. Id. Because the ultimate question in this case now turned on a question of fact-the proximate cause of Anderson's injury-the court of appeals remanded the case to the district court to determine whether Anderson's injury was the "direct and immediate result" of Bruno's behavior. Id. at 838.

In addition, the Court concluded that the district court's reliance on definitions of "harboring" and "keeping" where inaccurate interpretations of the terms. Id.Consequently, it also remanded to the district court the question of whether Dennis Christopherson could be considered to be "harboring" or "keeping" Bruno within the meaning of the law. Id.

The Minnesota Supreme Court's Decision
In its opinion dated July 18, 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals' decision and remanded both issues to the trial court. Anderson v. Christopherson, 816 N.W.2d 626, 632 (Minn. 2012). In the majority opinion written by Justice Page, the Court and reasoned that under Lewellin, the issue to analyze was not whether Bruno's "focus" was on Mr. Anderson, but rather whether Bruno's actions constituted an affirmative act that was the proximate cause of Mr. Anderson's injuries.Anderson, 816 N.W.2d at 631. Essentially, the majority found that the situation at hand was distinguishable from Lewellin. Id.

Applying this test to the facts in this case, the Court concluded that because reasonable minds could differ in concluding whether Mr. Anderson's injuries were the direct and immediate result of Bruno's actions, it was a question of fact for the jury.Id. at 631-32. Specifically, the majority reasoned that there were three possible inferences that could be found:

(1) that the attack on Tuffy caused Anderson's fall and injuries; (2) that the attack on Tuffy caused Anderson to intervene to protect Tuffy, resulting in the fall and injuries, with Anderson's intervention being the direct and immediate response; or (3) that the attack on Tuffy caused Anderson to respond but broke the chain of causation.

Id. at 632.

For the second issue of whether Dennis Christopherson was liable as an "owner" under Minn. Stat. § 347.22, the majority relied on the definitions of "harboring" and "keeping" articulated in Verrett v. Silver, 309 Minn. 275, 277, 244 N.W.2d 147, 149 (1976). Specifically, the Court found that a jury could reasonably find that Dennis Christopherson was "harboring" or "keeping" Bruno by enabling his son to keep Bruno at his home. Anderson, N.W.2d at 633. The Court noted that Neil Christopherson had permission to bring Bruno to his parents' home in Andover and that they had discussed rules for Bruno's behavior while staying at the home. Id. at 633-34. Accordingly, the Court concluded that whether Dennis Christopherson fell into the definition of a "harborer" or "keeper" of Bruno was again a fact question for the jury.Id.

Chief Justice Gildea, who was joined by Justice Dietzen, wrote the dissenting opinion relating solely to the issue of whether the Christophersons where liable under the "attacks or injures" portion of the statute. Id. at 634. Chief Justice Gildea reasoned that Mr. Anderson's decision to intervene in the tussle between Tuffy and Bruno was similar to the facts under Lewellin and was enough to make the chain of causation too attenuated to establish liability. Id. at 634-35. Specifically the she noted:

Creating liability for a dog owner not only when his dog directly and immediately injures the plaintiff, but also when the plaintiff is injured because the plaintiff decided to respond to the dog's actions, is not contemplated by the statute and is inconsistent with our case law.

Id. at 636.

Chief Justice Gildea argued that the majority's finding that there was a possibility of liability under this portion of the statute for Neil Christopherson was effectively overruling Lewellin without the proper basis to do so. Id. at 635.


Christenson, Strobl Affirmed by Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals

October 29, 2012

Thomas ChristensonOn October 22, 2012, Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A. attorneys Tom Christenson and Garin Strobl were affirmed by the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals. Mr. Christenson and Ms. Strobl represented the employer and insurer in a case involving an employee who alleged that she suffered significant permanent injuries after a four-year-old child bumped into her during school. The Compensation Judge adopted the expert opinion of the employer/insurer and found that the injuries that employee sustained from the incident had resolved by April 23, 2010. The employee subsequently appealed.

In their appellate brief, Mr. Christenson and Ms. Strobl successfully argued that the Compensation Judge was entitled to determine the validity of conflicting medical evidence under Nord v. City of Cook, 360 N.W.2d 337, 37 W.C.D. 364 (Minn. 1985). Further, they argued that it was irrelevant that the employee had a larger number of medical providers who found evidence of an ongoing injury related to the underlying accident. Finally, Mr. Christenson and Ms. Strobl argued that their expert's categorization of the injury did not tarnish the foundation of his opinion.

The Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals agreed and stated that the doctors "choice of words may have minimized that force of the injury, but the essential description of how the injury occurred is not significantly different from the description of the incident." Because the employer's/insurer's expert took a history from the employee, physically examined her, and reviewed her medical records prior to giving his opinion, the Workers' Compensation Court of Appeals affirmed the Compensation Judge's decision that he had adequate foundation on which to base his opinion, regardless of the multitude of experts who opined that the employee's injuries from the incident were permanent.

Finally, the employee argued that the Compensation Judge failed to comment upon the credibility of the employee when he rendered his decision. Mr. Christenson and Ms. Strobl again successfully argued that a comment on the employee's credibility was irrelevant to the Compensation Judge's decision to adopt the expert opinion of the employer/insurer.


Mike LaFountaine Successfully Defends Homeowners in Case Involving Guest's Fall From Terrace

September 26, 2012

Mike LaFountaineOn May 9, 2012, Quinlivan & Hughes attorney Mike LaFountaine obtained a defense verdict for his clients in a case involving a fall from a terrace. The case was venued in Alexandria, Douglas County, before Judge Ann Carrott.

The accident that was the subject of the lawsuit happened on July 25, 2009, when the 33-year-old male Plaintiff fell while on the Defendants' property. The accident happened as Plaintiff was playing with children during a family reunion. As Plaintiff ran from children with squirt guns, he ran through a planting area with shrubs that, according to Plaintiff, obscured a terrace wall and a drop off of approximately ten feet. Plaintiff landed on a concrete patio at the base of the terrace. Plaintiff claimed the terrace wall was unguarded and contained no warnings. Plaintiff also claimed he did not see the terrace wall before running through the shrubs. Violations of various building codes were alleged.

Plaintiff suffered injuries to his feet, including heel fractures and ankle injuries requiring the placement of metal hardware.

The jury concluded that Plaintiff was 55% at fault and that Defendants were 45% at fault. Because Plaintiff's fault was greater than that of Defendants, Plaintiff recovered nothing.

Plaintiff's liability expert was Robert Euteneuer. Defendants' liability expert was Charles Lane.

After the verdict the case was voluntarily dismissed by Plaintiff without any appeal in exchange for the Defense's agreement to waive its costs and disbursements.