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Case Name: January 2016 – Maria Tejeda v. Carl Buddig & Co.
Venue: Chicago IWCC
Handling Attorney: Andrew M. Fernandez
Date of Accident: 09/05/2014
Potential Exposure: $272,078
Arbitrator Findings: Respondent wins on all issues; $0.00 in benefits due and owing to Petitioner

Dear Clients,

We are pleased to share with you our most recent trial victory in front of the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission. This case demonstrates the importance of vigilant trial preparation and close communication with the client in order to ensure that petitioners cannot make claims that are unsupported by the evidence. Based on a number of inconsistencies in Petitioner’s testimony, the Arbitrator found that she did not prove that a compensable injury occurred on the job, or that any of her existing health conditions were caused by the alleged work injury.

Case Summary Background

Petitioner Maria Tejeda alleged that on September 5, 2014, she injured both of her knees after slipping on a plastic bag while working as a packing associate in a Carl Buddig meat packing facility. The circumstances around the alleged slip-and-fall as well as Petitioner’s extensive medical history cast serious doubts upon her claims that her knee problems were the result of a workplace accident, and that she had even suffered a legitimate accident at all.

Respondent’s prompt investigation of the alleged injury included an interview with Petitioner as well as 15-20 people who were working nearby her. The initial report, based on a conversation with Petitioner, indicated that after she claimed to have slipped, she stumbled for a distance of approximately six feet, hit one knee on a floor drain and the other on the cement. Analysis of the workplace revealed the unlikelihood of the story. At work, she had a specific station and only minimal, if any, walking was required. She worked as a packer, and there were no plastic bags present anywhere near where she worked, as the meat is bagged at a different station by different employees. There was also a large garbage bin and a custodian to empty it in order to ensure that bags and other potential hazards are kept off of the floor. Most suspicious of all, Respondent’s interviews with Petitioner’s coworkers revealed that no one had seen Petitioner fall, despite fifty individuals working nearby and her allegedly stumbling several feet before hitting the ground.

Review of Petitioner’s medical records indicated an extensive history of knee problems that cast serious doubts upon the possibility that her condition at trial was caused by the alleged workplace slip-and-fall. Respondent had reported pain in both knees at least five years prior to the alleged accident based on a completely separate incident. Prior to the alleged workplace injury, she had undergone knee surgery, several weeks of physical therapy, and multiple steroid injections to her knees. She had complained of knee pain to her personal physical as recently as September 4, 2014, only one day before the alleged fall at work. Doctors reported degeneration of her knees both before and after the alleged accident.

Review of Petitioner’s employment records showed that shortly before her alleged slip-and-fall, she had sought an accommodation of being excused from working overtime, but that Respondent was unable to grant accommodations stemming from non-workplace injuries. She had also exhausted her FMLA leave based on her prior knee surgery, and accordingly would not be able to miss time at work unless she were to suffer a subsequent work injury.

Legal/Claim Strategy

Rather than aiming to merely minimize our client’s exposure, we pursued a complete victory by seeking to expose the unlikelihood of the slip occurring the way that Petitioner claimed, her long and continuous history of knee issues, and the convenient timing of her alleged workplace injury considering she had recently been denied an accommodation.

Further analysis of her work environment cast further doubts on her story. It was revealed that her job duties require little, if any, walking, that the floor is regularly kept clear of any potential tripping hazards, and that the grate she claimed to have hit one knee on is regularly checked to make sure it is flush with the floor so as not to be a tripping hazard. Most striking was the complete lack of witnesses to the alleged fall, despite dozens of other employees being present at the time.

When pressed for details, Petitioner changed her story in several ways. The initial incident report, based on a conversation with Petitioner, says that she slipped on meat, and not a plastic bag. Between cross and redirect examination, the distance which she stumbled after her slip and prior to her fall had at least doubled; from six feet to between twelve and fourteen feet. (A lengthier stumble makes it even harder to believe that nobody would have witnessed it.)

Our review of Petitioner’s medical records showed that she had a history of dishonesty regarding her medical history, including to the doctors who treated her. On September 24, 2014, Petitioner complained to a doctor of greater pain in her left knee than in her right, but a medical exam showed a full and pain-free range of motion in her left knee. On October 20, 2014, she incorrectly told a doctor that she had no history of prior knee problems, despite having knee surgery and missing significant time at work the preceding year. On March 16, 2015, she incorrectly told another doctor that she had not sought or received treatment for her knees in the six months prior to the alleged workplace slip-and-fall, despite the fact that she had her knees examined and sought a work accommodation the day before the alleged accident. She lied about the nature of this visit at trial; claiming that she complained only of a sore throat and foot pain. The note written by that doctor clearly indicated that her knee problems were the reason that she sought an accommodation.

Additionally, she altogether failed to mention to anyone (only a thorough review of her medical records revealed the truth) that due to a myriad of unrelated medications, she suffered shortness of breath and fainting spells, including an episode just a week and a half prior to the alleged workplace injury. She also told doctors that she was unable to work after the alleged accident, based on her incorrect assertion that there was no accommodation available involving sedentary or stationary work. This is directly contrary to Respondent’s policy of accommodating workplace injuries.

Finally, we exposed at trial that the circumstances and suspicious timing of these events created a clear motive for Petitioner to fabricate or exaggerate a workplace injury. The day before her alleged slip-and-fall, she sought an accommodation of excusal from working overtime based on her pre-existing knee issues. Respondent could not provide it because it was not work-related. Because Petitioner had used her yearly allotment of FMLA leave on her prior knee surgery, a subsequent workplace injury would be the only way for Respondent to receive time off or the accommodation that she sought.

Based on the totality of unlikely events, Respondent’s dishonest statements both in medical treatment and at trial, and her motive to fabricate or exaggerate a workplace injury, the Arbitrator found that Petitioner was not a credible witness and that she did not prove the existence of a workplace injury.

Significance

By exposing every weakness in Petitioner’s testimony, we have shown that responsible employers can obtain complete victory against claims that might otherwise be given the “benefit of the doubt.” It requires a joint effort of employers maintaining effective workplace safety and incident reporting policies, as well as a detail-oriented legal team that will work closely with the client to collect evidence, prepare witnesses, and ultimately expose dishonest claimants. We hope that this case is a reminder that through vigilant preparation and advocacy, and close work with the client, we can achieve resounding wins.

If you should have any additional questions or thoughts about this decision, please do not hesitate to contact the undersigned or the handling attorney, Andrew M. Fernandez.

Very truly yours,

KNELL O’CONNOR DANIELEWICZ

Bradley C. Knell