• Key point. All states have enacted workers compensation laws to provide benefits to employees who are injured or become ill in the course of their employment. Benefits generally are financed through insurance premiums paid by employers. Churches are subject to workers compensation laws in most states.
• Key point. Employees are not eligible for workers compensation benefits unless they suffer an injury or illness in the course of their employment that renders them disabled.
A Louisiana court ruled that a church music director who claimed to have suffered increased sensitivity to chemicals as a result of her exposure to pine scented Lysol at church was not eligible for workers compensation benefits. A woman was hired by a church as its music director. As part of her job duties, the music director was required to direct both the bell choir and the chancel choir. During choir rehearsals she would demonstrate to the choir members how to sing, and breathing techniques for singing. In order to maintain her singing voice, it was necessary for her to practice one hour each day. During her tenure as music director the church choir was invited to sing at Carnegie Hall under her direction. One day, after arriving at church for a staff meeting, the music director noticed a very strong odor of pine scented Lysol. Lysol was being used in a room in the area to clean the toys and walls of the nursery. This concerned her because she had been diagnosed as having asthma as a child and also had an allergy to pine. She asked that the door remain open for the meeting and that the fan be turned on in order to help the odor dissipate. The meeting lasted approximately one and one-half hours. After the meeting she left the building for about one and one-half hours. Upon her return she continued to smell the Lysol. As she left the church later that day she noticed that she was having difficulty breathing. She used a “bronchodilator” and then took an antihistamine, falling asleep shortly afterward. The next morning, she received a telephone call from a friend, who could barely understand her voice. The friend and her husband went to the music director’s home where they found her face to be swollen almost beyond recognition. A few days later, after returning to work, she again noted the smell of pine scented Lysol and found that it was again being used to clean the nursery area. She immediately left the building. Following this second exposure, the music director requested that she be notified before any chemicals were used in the church. A few days later she again was exposed to pine Lysol fumes at church, and immediately left the building.
The music director was fired in May of 1995. In September of that year she filed a claim for workers compensation on the basis of injuries she allegedly incurred as a result of her exposures to pine scented Lysol at work. At her trial, the music director claimed that the exposures to Lysol left her with an increased sensitivity to various odors and chemicals. She testified as to several instances where she was in public, but had to leave due to certain odors which caused her to wheeze and have difficulty breathing. She testified that she only goes out of the house two or three times per week and that her physician told her she needed to be homebound except for trips to the store. In addition, she claimed that the exposures to Lysol caused her “mild” asthma to become severe, resulting in a chronic cough that damaged her vocal cords and affected her singing voice. She testified that her singing voice now has a “breathy tone” which is not acceptable by any standards of choral repertoires. Prior to being fired, she stated that her work was seriously impaired because of her inability to sing and demonstrate proper breathing techniques. The music director’s physician testified that once an individual develops “reactive airway disease,” the airways become very sensitive not only to the particular chemical that triggered the disease but also to other stimuli as well. He further testified that the music director was no longer able to perform the type of work she was doing prior to the exposures.
The church’s physician testified that the results of pulmonary function tests were consistent with normal ventilatory function. He concluded that the effects of the Lysol were temporary and there was no evidence that her asthma remained worse after her recovery from that exposure. He did not believe that the music director needed to remain housebound, and he did not believe that her asthma would have an adverse effect on her employability. A trial judge concluded that the music director was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits and dismissed her claim. The judge based this conclusion on the numerous times that the music director was observed carrying on a normal schedule, including shopping, trips to the post office, and trips to local restaurants. The judge observed that the music director had “underreported her activities” while “overreporting her maladies.” The music director appealed.
A state appeals court agreed with the trial judge, and denied any workers compensation benefits. It began its opinion by observing, “It is well-settled that for an employee to recover benefits under the worker’s compensation law, the employee must carry the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that an accident occurred in the course and scope of his employment, that the accident caused his injury, and that the injury caused his disability …. Although the worker’s compensation rules are construed liberally in favor of the claimant, the employee still must carry the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that the injury caused his disability.” The court conceded that the music director was exposed to pine scented Lysol fumes on at least three occasions during her employment with the church. As a result, the only issue in this case was whether the music director was disabled as a result of these exposures. The court concluded that the evidence at trial failed to prove her disability by a preponderance of the evidence.
Application. This case illustrates two important points. First, churches are subject to workers compensation laws in most states. This means that they should obtain workers compensation insurance on all employees. Such insurance generally will relieve a church of any liability for injuries or illnesses suffered by employees in the course of their employment. However, many churches have not obtained workers compensation insurance, or they have obtained insurance for only some of their staff. This results in a dangerous gap in coverage, making the church potentially liable for some employment-related illnesses and injuries. Many church leaders wrongly assume that the church’s general liability insurance policy will provide coverage. This is rarely the case, since one of the most common exclusions in such policies is any employment-related injury or illness. This exclusion is based on the assumption that such injuries and illnesses are covered under workers compensation. Church leaders should review their workers compensation insurance at least annually, to ensure that all employees are covered. Second, this case demonstrates that employees are not necessarily entitled to workers compensation benefits for all work-related injuries and illnesses. Their illness or injury must result in some form of disability, even if that disability is temporary. The church in this case was able to refute the music director’s claim by (1) “surveillance” videotapes showing her engaged in normal activities in direct contradiction to her claim that she was homebound, and (2) a physician’s testimony that the Lysol exposure did not result in a disabling condition. Starkman v. Munholland United Methodist Church, 707 So.2d 1277 (La. App. 1998). [Workers Compensation]
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