Love And Workers' Compensation – A Match Made Somewhere Short Of Heaven?


Editors Note: This article is being republished in honor of St. Valentines Day. It originally ran on our site February 14, 2009

Cupid's arrow, it would seem, has been the cause of many work-related injuries and has found its way into its fair share of workers' compensation cases. We "jest at scars that never felt a wound." The pain of unrequited love has unraveled a spool of unrivaled opinions in our law library. Having a romantic relationship with a co-worker has both advantages and disadvantages.

As a rule, it is not advisable, from the standpoint of professional ethics, to get involved in a romantic situation with a fellow employee. Favoritism in matters of promotion and salary are one of the chief causes of discrimination and harassment lawsuits. Consensual relationships are usually covered by civil right's amendments in most states. However, workers' compensation laws in many states do not consider injuries resulting from personal disputes or activities occurring on the job "as arising in and out of the course of employment." More often than not, "employment" means 'while doing actual work you are assigned to.'

We found that even common-law marriages can be drawn into the drama of a workers' comp case. States have different laws regarding survivor's benefits for common-law marriages. Consult an attorney to know what your partner's legal rights are in such relationships. There are also rules of professional conduct between case workers and their clients. Unethical practices can seriously damage a company's reputation or a case.

It is only out of curiosity, but with fair warning, that for Valentine's Day we review some of the more interesting workers' comp cases of romantic workplace encounters and their consequences. You can read the entire court opinion transcripts in the case law library. Here is a summary of some of the more interesting cases:

Unruh v. Truck Insurance Exchange (1972) #7 Cal.3d 616, California.
An insurer's investigator engaged in a romantic relationship with the claimant so that he could take photographs of her on a trip to Disneyland in order to compromise her worker's compensation claim. The court concluded that the investigator "did entice and cause the plaintiff to conduct herself in a manner beyond her usual and normal physical capabilities ...." The claimant was awarded $500,000 in general damages, and special damages for medical and other expenses and wage loss, past and future, in sums to be determined.

Polly v. Coffey, (2003) # 2003-Ohio-509, Ohio.
Cites Deaton v. Bowling (1998), Butler App. No. CA97-12-249.
In Deaton, this court affirmed a trial court's determination that a common-law marriage did not exist where the parties chose to forego marriage in order to maintain eligibility for workers' compensation benefits.

R.S. v. U.S. Postal Service, (2007) # 06-1312P Federal Jurisdiction, Philadelphia, Pa.
The court concluded that the physical altercation at the post office elevator between two employees who had recently terminated a romantic relationship was not work-related. Injuries suffered from the personal dispute were not compensable.

Panpat v. Owens-Brockway, (2001) # CA A104501, Oregon.
Love in the workplace can end in terrible tragedy. Two employees who had worked together on the same shift broke up. The woman involved in the romantic relationship was asked to work another shift but she refused. While on medical leave, the former boyfriend came in drunk one day and shot to death his ex-girlfriend and turned the gun on himself. The family of the dead woman sued the company for negligence. Because the injury that led to her death arose out of and in the course of her employment the workers' compensation system provides the employer "exclusive remedy" where the employer cannot be held liable for damages beyond workers' compensation insurance. The motive behind the shooting was not work-related. It was based solely on their failed personal relationship and was not engendered or exacerbated by their employment.

Mackey v. Corrections , (2003) # C040262, California.
This case reads like a soap opera. A workers compensation claim was filed for intentional emotional distress and disability discrimination by a female corrections officer (who was more qualified) against a prison warden who granted promotions and special favors to (less qualified) female co-workers with whom he had romantic affairs. The court concluded that her claims were barred by workers' compensation exclusivity. The court also cited Proksel v. Gattis (1996) 41 Cal.App.4th 1626 "Not all types of sexual favoritism violate Title VII. It is the Commission's position that Title VII does not prohibit isolated instances of preferential treatment based upon consensual romantic relationships."

Romance and worker's comp may be more prevalent than we originally realized. There are many more cases like the one's we referenced here. The workplace is a ripe environment for these types of situations to happen. In the final analysis, it may be wise to consider discretion as a virtue. After all, Cupid can make you feel but he can't make you think!

Happy Valentine's Day.

Related article:
Going Postal and Workers' Compensation : Life is like a box of chocolates.

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