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Volunteer Not Employee; Layoff Stress Caused Heart

During the third week of November, 2016, the Maine Worker's Compensation Board issued two decisions affirming the ALJs’ decisions below, one involving a volunteer driver who claimed to be an employee, and the other involving heart attack the employee claimed to be work-related.

In Larry Huff v. Regional Transportation Program, Huff was a volunteer driver for RTP, which reimbursed his mileage expenses for using his own vehicle to transport low income clients to various social service agencies. RTP also had employees, but unlike Huff and other volunteers, they drove RTP vehicles and received wages. Huff was driving his vehicle for RTP when he was in an accident and was injured. He filed a Petition for Award, claiming he was an employee, but Judge Collier found that he was not an employee but was rather a volunteer and denied his petition.

Huff appealed, but the Appellate Division panel upheld Judge Collier's decision, finding that Huff did not receive "remuneration" but instead received only reimbursement for his travel expenses, and he could decline to accept driving assignments. Huff argued that the WC Board should use the "independent contractor" analysis it uses in other cases, but the panel dismissed that argument, again because RTP did not pay wages to Huff.

In Lorrie Johnson v. Vescom Corporation, Johnson was a security guard at the paper mill in Baileyville. She checked vehicles, visitors and deliveries at the main gate, and she had a heart attack during work. She filed a Petition for Award alleging it was causally related to her work and thus compensable under Maine's WC Act.

Dr. Teufel performed a §312 IME and found that, although Johnson had pre-existing coronary artery disease, her "work-stress" caused her heart attack. Judge Pelletier found that Ms. Johnson was psychologically fragile and thought she may be laid off soon (which she apparently was), and that this mental stress brought about her physical injury.

Vescom appealed, arguing that Judge Pelletier should have applied the higher standards of compensability for mental stress injuries under §201 (3). The appellate panel disagreed, because Johnson was claiming a physical injury, not a mental injury. Vescom also argued that Johnson failed to show "legal causation," because her heart attack could have happened any time, regardless of whether she was at work. The panel again disagreed, finding support in the record that Johnson’s work stress increased her risk of a heart attack.

By applying the Bryant v. Masters Machine Co. standard of compensability in cases where a heart attack is caused by “work related’ stress, the AD may have opened the door to awarding disability benefits for mental injuries without having to meet the higher standard of proof in §201 (3). The decision refers to the mental stress as “work related” without reference to §201(3) because Johnson had physical manifestations of the “work related” stress in the form of a heart attack. On this basis, the WCB might also let employees establish compensable disability arising from mental stress without satisfying the specific §201(3) burdens as long as there are some other physical manifestations such as headaches, nausea, or insomnia.

If you have any questions as to these or any other cases or issues, please let us know.

Thomas Getchell
Daniel Gilligan
Michael Richards
Attorneys at Law