Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Worker’s Compensation – Heat Exhaustion Claims In Maryland

            As we near the end of yet another sweltering Maryland summer, where record-setting temperatures were seen frequently, it is pertinent to address how our modern ability to combat the heat may affect Worker’s Compensation precedent in Maryland.

            Maryland case law on this issue can inevitably be traced back to the case of Slacum v. Jolley, 153 Md. 343, 138 A. 244 (1927) (reversed on other grounds). In Slacum, the Court of Appeals of Maryland ruled against a claim for Worker’s Compensation where Jolley died of a heat stroke after operating a bus on an “extremely warm” day.  The court held that the Jolley’s death was not the result of a compensable work related accident.  In doing so, however, Maryland’s highest court cautioned that, “if heat stroke or heat prostration are caused by unusual and extraordinary conditions in the employment which cannot be regarded as naturally and ordinarily incident thereto, there is no apparent reason why such injuries should not be compensable.”  Slacum, 343 Md. at 351.

            In its analysis of the facts surrounding Jolley’s death, the Court explained that those facts, when applied to the law, did not make out a compensable occurrence:

[E]ven if we could assume that his death was caused by heat prostration, there is no testimony that it was occasioned by his employment.  The testimony shows that the day was hot, that Jolley complained of the heat, that he was engaged in driving an automobile without a foot ventilator, that when he returned to his home he appeared tired and worn, said he felt badly, complained of heat ‘in the bus,’ and drank a quantity of iced tea and water.  These facts, separately or together, are insufficient to show that Jolley’s condition was caused by his employment, or that the conditions of his employment were different from those affecting the general public in that neighborhood at that time, or that they were unusual or extraordinary, and not naturally and ordinarily incident to the employment
Id., at 352 (emphasis added). Applying the law as the Court of Appeals articulates it in Slacum to a modern case, where a worker dies from heat stroke after working in the naturally hot conditions of summer, begs this question: Did the employee die from “conditions of his employment [that] were different from those affecting the general public?” If yes, then the death is likely a compensable occurrence under the Labor & Employment Article, § 9-101, et seq. If no, then the death is likely not compensable.

            As always, each case requires its own specific factual analysis before concluding that a given injury is compensable. For example, claimants’ counsel in our modern, air-conditioned, 21st-century era might argue, perhaps, that the modern age is significantly different to the 1927 world of Slacum, warranting a departure from the analysis of that case. In 1927, escape from the heat of summer was nearly impossible, aside from physically relocating to a location with a cooler climate. Today, however, with the advent and mass application of air conditioning in many work environments, the analysis of whether extreme heat conditions are “naturally and ordinarily incident to the employment” and “different from those affecting the general public” in a given case may, in fact, be different than it was in the 1920’s. In counter to this, defense counsel might argue that the entire Mid-Atlantic region has suffered through particularly extreme summers over the past few decades, sometimes experiencing multiple, consecutive days where temperatures exceed 100° F, and that, sadly, many people, not just workers exposed to the heat, died from heat exhaustion. As such, the natural conditions of working outside are, arguably, not different than those affecting the general public.

Article contributed by Paul G. Donohue

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