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Annals of Workers Comp: A Stroke of Bad Fortune
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Annals of Workers Comp: A Stroke of Bad Fortune

Just because an injury or illness occurs at work, it's not necessarily covered by workers comp.

Here's a scenario: Alina Cohen, a teacher in the public schools of North Carolina, was invited to a meeting concerning her performance as a math teacher at Early College High School in Franklin. Her supervisor, school principal James Harris, was concerned that Cohen might not appreciate the negative evaluation, so he invited Charles Fuller, the director of secondary education, to attend.

They met after school in October 2013. Harris showed Cohen a professional development plan that he had crafted in order to improve Cohen's performance. She apparently did not like it and she refused to sign it. The meeting lasted fifteen minutes.

Cohen developed head pain during the meeting and sought medical care a few days later. She had suffered a stroke. She filed a workers comp claim, which the school contested. The claim reached the NC Court of Appeals, where it was once and for all deemed not compensable (subscription required).

In many states, workers comp claims that arise out of personnel actions (hiring, discipline, termination) are specifically excluded from coverage. This apparently is not the case in North Carolina. However, the court ruled that an employee who is injured while carrying out the employee's "usual tasks in the usual way" has not suffered a compensable injury. We would all agree that participating in a negative performance review is indeed stressful; the stress may under rare circumstances lead to a stroke. But in the final analysis, the stroke does not arise "out of" employment.

There are circumstances where a stroke at work would likely be compensable, but the stress would have to involve something way beyond normal job activities. Even though Cohen's stroke surely was work related, it did not qualify for coverage under the workers comp statute.

Jon Coppelman
Senior Workers Compensation Consultant

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