Injury claims and the courts

Devon Sykes

Hundreds of University employees file workers’ compensation injury claims annually.

While most cases are satisfied through workers’ compensation, occasionally, cases end up in the court system.

Under state law, the University is required to pay both medical costs and lost wages for any employee injured on the job.

Terry Teachout, director of workers’ compensation at the University, said typical claims include sprains, cuts, bruises, needle sticks and an occasional broken bone.

The number of claims changes with the season; summer construction and icy winter conditions yield a higher risk of injury.

The time it takes to work through a claim depends on the seriousness of the injury.

“A broken leg claim takes six to eight weeks because that’s how long it takes for it to heal. A cut finger claim takes a day,” Teachout said.

Michael Steenson, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law, said workers’ compensation insurance is usually the only recourse an employee can take when injured on the job.

“The general rule is if the employee is covered by workers’ compensation, then that’s the exclusive remedy,” he said.

There are exceptions to this rule.

“One would be where the employer intentionally injures the employee,” Steenson said.

He said filing a lawsuit in a case that workers’ compensation covers is difficult.

Litigation numbers

Litigation costs comprise about 10 percent of total workers’ compensation costs at the University, according to the annual report of the Office of Risk Management & Insurance from fiscal 2004.

The office recently analyzed the changes in litigation statistics in workers’ compensation cases from 1997 to 2000 and from 2001 to 2004.

According to the analysis, the average number of litigated claims has dropped from 35 per year in the first period to 19 per year in the second period.

During the first period, 5.3 percent of workers’ compensation cases went to litigation, while 2 percent did in the second.

The total number of workers’ compensation claims filed also has fallen steadily in the past few years, from 921 in fiscal 1999, to 656 in fiscal 2004.

University litigation case

Lusha Liu, a former University research associate who was injured three years ago in a steam-scalding accident while working in the psychiatry department, has filed a lawsuit.

“Liu is a very unfortunate situation,” said University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg .

“It’s a tort case, meaning she alleges that certain injuries she suffered require University compensation,” he said.

He has submitted the case to binding arbitration.

He said the two parties in the case have agreed to go into binding high-low arbitration, a type of legal mediation where the parties agree on a minimum and maximum award for the plaintiff and then submit it to a group of attorneys selected as arbitrators.

The plaintiff, Liu, and the University each select one, and those two arbitrators agree on a third.

Arbitration is scheduled for the first week of October. The award will be within the range of $50,000 and $500,000.

Fred Pritzker, Liu’s attorney, said that the University’s fault is not an issue in the case.

“The University has admitted fault,” he said. “It’s somewhat unusual for any defendant to admit liability and causation, so it’s clear that they’re responsible.

“Obviously, they’re contesting what the value of the case is. Arbitration is less expensive and somewhat less time-consuming than going to trial.”

She was burned “very severely” and has experienced problems since the incident, Pritzker said.

Jeannine Aquino contributed to this report.