Articles Posted in Labor & Employment Law

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Weyerhaeuser Company challenged an award of industrial insurance benefits to its former employee, Roger Street, for his low back condition, a claimed occupational disease. Weyerhaeuser argued that a worker must present expert medical testimony that the disease "arises naturally" out of employment. The Court of Appeals rejected Weyerhaeuser's argument, holding that the controlling case law required Street to present expert medical testimony to show that his back condition "arose naturally" from employment. Because there was medical testimony supporting the "arises proximately" requirement and lay testimony supporting the "arises naturally" requirement, the appeals court held that Street proved his low back condition was an occupational disease and affirmed the jury award of benefits. Finding no reversible error in the Court of Appeals’ decision, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed. View "Street v. Weyerhaeuser Co." on Justia Law

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The federal district court has asked the Washington Supreme Court to answer two certified questions concerning how a Washington labor regulation addressing meal breaks should be applied. A wage dispute was pending at the federal court. Plaintiff Michael Brady filed an amended class action complaint seeking unpaid wages for meal breaks that defendant Autozone Inc. allegedly withheld from employees. Autozone removed the case to the federal district court. Brady later moved in that court to certify a class. After reviewing Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 296-126-092; Administrative Policy ES.C.6; and various decisions from Washington state courts, Western District of Washington, and California, the district court concluded that employers have met their obligation under the law if they ensure that employees have the opportunity for a meaningful meal break, free from coercion or any other impediment. The district court expressly rejected the notion that Washington has adopted a strict liability approach to the taking of meal breaks. In doing so, the district court found that class certification would be inappropriate considering the unique fact scenarios associated with each potential violation of the meal break statute. Accordingly, the district court denied Brady's motion for class certification. Brady sought review of this denial in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but that court would not permit Brady to appeal the decision. Brady then filed a motion in the district court, seeking to certify two questions to the Washington Supreme Court: (1) Is an employer strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092?; (2) If an employer is not strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092, does the employee carry the burden to prove that his employer did not permit the employee an opportunity to take a meaningful break as required by WAC 296-126-092? The Washington Court answered the first certified question no: The employer is not automatically liable if a meal break is missed because the employee may waive the meal break. The Court answered the second certified question: an employee asserting a meal break violation under WAC 296-126-092 can establish his or her prima facie case by providing evidence that he or she did not receive a timely meal break. The burden then shifts to the employer to rebut this by showing that in fact no violation occurred or that a valid waiver exists. View "Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc." on Justia Law

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This case presented a question of whether the then-current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the State of Washington and Services Employees International Union Healthcare 775NW (SEIU) included a union security provision statutorily authorized under chapter 41.56 RCW. The trial court held that the CBA contained an authorized union security provision and dismissed the lawsuit. Finding no error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Thorpe v. Inslee" on Justia Law

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Allan Tabingo was seriously injured while working aboard a fishing trawler owned and operated by American Seafoods Company LLC and American Triumph LLC (collectively American Seafoods). Tabingo alleged the lever used to operate a hatch on the trawler's deck broke when an operator tried to stop the hatch from closing. The hatch closed on Tabingo' s hand, leading to the amputation of two fingers. He brought numerous claims against American Seafoods, including a general maritime unseaworthiness claim for which he requested punitive damages. American Seafoods argued that as a matter of law, punitive damages were unavailable for unseaworthiness claims. The issue of whether punitive damages were available for a claim of unseaworthiness was a question of first impression for both the United States and Washington State Supreme Courts. The United States Supreme Court recently held that punitive damages were available for maintenance and cure, another general maritime claim. The Court held that because both the claim and the damages were historically available at common law and because Congress had shown no intent to limit recovery of punitive damages, those damages were available. Here, the Washington Court followed the United States Supreme Court's rationale and found that, like maintenance and cure, punitive damages were available for a general maritime unseaworthiness claim. The Washington Court reversed the trial court and remanded for further proceedings. View "Tabingo v. Am. Triumph LLC" on Justia Law

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Consolidated cases involved two city of Bellevue (City) firefighters who were diagnosed with malignant melanoma and filed claims for workers' compensation benefits. In both cases, the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals (Board) denied the firefighters' claims. Both firefighters then appealed the Board's decision to King County Superior Court. Under the Industrial Insurance Act (IIA), Title 51 RCW, a worker injured in the course of employment who suffers from an "occupational disease" is entitled to workers' compensation benefits. The parties disagreed about various aspects of how and whether the presumption in RCW 51.32.185 should operate when a board decision was appealed to superior court. The Supreme Court noted that RCW 51.32.185 reflected a strong social policy in favor of the worker and concluded that: (1) whether the City rebutted the firefighter presumption was a factual determination that was properly given to the jury in Larson, but improperly decided as a matter of law in “Spivey;” (2) RCW 51.32.185 shifted both the burden of production and burden of persuasion to the employer; (3) in “Larson,” jury instruction 9 was proper; and ( 4) Larson was entitled to attorney fees at the Board level. The Court thus affirmed the Court of Appeals' decision in “Larson” and reversed in “Spivey.” View "Spivey v. City of Bellevue" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Dean Wilcox fell 50 feet through an open catwalk hatch onto a concrete floor. Having sustained severe injuries, he sued the on-site safety planner, Steven Basehore, for negligent planning causing the fall; Wilcox also named the safety planner's employer, Bartlett Services, Inc., and an intermediary company, ELR Consulting, Inc. (ELR), in respondeat superior. Before trial, the court granted ELR judgment as a matter of law. At trial, the court instructed the jury on the borrowed servant doctrine, an extension of respondeat superior. Wilcox appealed both decisions. The Court of Appeals affirmed. After review, the Supreme Court also affirmed: the borrowed servant doctrine was a question for the jury, where complete control was a disputed fact. Whether the servant is loaned through an intermediary does not preclude application of the doctrine. “We decline to consider the implications of Wilcox's indemnification argument because it was raised as a jury instruction challenge for the first time on appeal.” The Court found that judgment as a matter of law was properly granted in favor of ELR because no reasonable jury could find that ELR had a right to control Basehore's conduct. View "Wilcox v. Basehore" on Justia Law

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Gerald Cook and Francisco Entila were both employees of the Boeing Company. Early in the morning on February 18, 2010, Cook finished work and walked to his vehicle in an employee parking lot. He was driving his personal vehicle out of the lot and onto a Boeing access road. The access road is located on Boeing's property, and it is maintained by Boeing. As Entila walked across the access road, Cook struck and injured him. Entila received workers' compensation benefits for his injuries and filed suit against Cook for negligence. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review centered on the scope of the immunity provisions of the Industrial Insurance Act (IIA) as applied to a third party tort action against another employee when the accident occurred after working hours, but where the injured plaintiff qualified for benefits under the act. The trial court dismissed the suit on summary judgment, holding the act applied to bar suit. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that immunity did not apply because the alleged co-employee tortfeasor was not acting in the scope and course of employment. The court also reversed the court's consideration of an injured plaintiff's receipt of IIA benefits in determining immunity. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals. View "Entila v. Cook" on Justia Law

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A police dog bit a police officer during a nighttime search for a burglary suspect in an abandoned building. Dog owners are usually strictly liable for dog bite damages. However, there is a statutory exception to strict liability for dog bites caused by the "lawful application of a police dog." At issue in this case was whether the County was strictly liable for an on-duty police dog biting an on-duty police officer. The Supreme Court held that under the circumstances of this case, the County was not subject to strict liability. View "Finch v. Thurston County" on Justia Law

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After the Department of Labor and Industries (Department) learned it had been overpaying respondent Jose Birrueta's industrial insurance benefits for years, it issued two orders, one assessing an overpayment and another changing Birrueta's status from married to unmarried for compensation purposes. Because Birrueta was overpaid due solely to an innocent misrepresentation about his marital status made on his behalf, the Supreme Court held the Department's orders were timely and authorized. The Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the ruling of the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals upholding the Department's orders. View "Birrueta v. Dep't of Labor & Indus." on Justia Law

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In 2000, the Department of Retirement Systems (DRS) created a new option for eligible retirees in which the retiree could opt for a pension that would allow a surviving spouse to continue to receive monthly pension benefits at the same amount after the retiree's death. To make this pension actuarially equivalent in value to the previous pension, the DRS provided for a greater reduction in the retiree's monthly benefits. In 2010, the DRS adopted rules that modified the degree of the actuarial reduction. Appellant Tim Lenander challenged the changes to the reduction, arguing that the changes violated the statutory scheme and impaired his contract right to a lower reduction in his pension payment. The Supreme Court found Lenander's arguments unavailing, holding that the DRS acted within its authority in amending the survivor benefit actuarial reduction regulations as set forth under former WACs 415-02-380 (2010) and 415-103-215 (2010). In amending these regulations, the DRS did not violate the contract clause of article I, section 23 of the Washington Constitution. Consequently, the Court held that the DRS did not infringe on Lenander's right to an "actuarial equivalent" survivor benefit, and that Lenander did not suffer substantial impairment to his pension contract rights. View "Lenander v. Dep't of Retirement Sys." on Justia Law