Most employers in West Virginia (WV) would never imagine that they would be deemed to be the chargeable employer in a hearing loss claim for an employee who worked a mere four days. But that's exactly what happened in a recent workers' compensation appeal before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Pioneer Pipe, Inc. v. Swain et al.
The Chargeable Employer in a Hearing Loss Claim after Only 4 Work Days?
Shortly after he stopped working, Swain was diagnosed with bilateral hearing loss attributable to noise exposure during his working career. The WV Office of Judges identified three employers that might be charged with his claim, including Pioneer.
What WV Law Says about a Chargeable Employer in a Hearing Loss Claim
West Virginia law gives the Insurance Commissioner the explicit authority to "allocate and divide" hazardous noise claims based on the employee's length of service with each employer. Nevertheless, the WV Insurance Commissioner adopted a policy refusing to allocate these claims, instead charging the last employer who exposed an employee to hazardous noise with responsibility for hearing loss claims.
The administrative law judge assigned to the case applied the Commissioner's policy and ruled Pioneer as the sole chargeable employer on the claim. The WV Workers’ Compensation Board of Review affirmed, and Pioneer appealed.
The Court affirmed the decision, finding Pioneer to be the sole chargeable employer for Swain's occupational hearing loss claim. Justice Ketchum, writing for the majority, found that the language of the statute—"may allocate"—made allocation discretionary with the Commissioner.
Is the Pioneer Case Fair to WV Employers?
Clearly, the Court's decision makes it very easy to determine the chargeable employer. Once you hire an employee and expose that employee to hazardous noise, you have "bought" the hearing loss claim. There is no minimum period of exposure necessary. Some employers and their carriers will get hit with claims based upon minimal employment and exposure, while others will dodge a significant bullet.
The Commissioner feels that most carriers will ultimately come out even. They will pick up some claims, and they will evade some claims. Although this is certainly true, when an employer is hit with a significant claim for a very short, insignificant exposure, it will not feel very fair or equitable.
What a Chargeable Employer in a Hearing Loss Claim Should Do
Employers in WV should note that the Commissioner's policy of non-allocation will not only apply to hearing loss claims in WV. The policy also applies to other occupational diseases for which employers may be deemed chargeable.
Despite the inherent unfairness of the Commission's policy when short-term employees are at issue, employers must resist any appearance that they screen out employees with disabilities, lest they be accused of discrimination. To best protect your business, contact the experienced workers’ compensation attorneys at Jenkins Fenstermaker for legal advice and representation: 304-523-2100. We’ll put our experience to work for you if you are in danger of being deemed the chargeable employer in a hearing loss claim in WV.