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Colorado woman's battle for denied work comp benefits drags on

We often write about the need to hire a workers' compensation attorney when you have been injured at work and are seeking benefits. Companies try to find any reason to deny benefits, which means that injured workers are often forced to fight for benefits that they should be entitled to.

One case recently in the news is a good example. It concerns a woman who lives here in Colorado but traveled out of state for work as a United Airlines flight attendant.

In 2011, the woman drove to the Denver airport, where she had free parking and free plane travel. She was not on duty at the time but was flying to New York specifically to start a shift there the next day. During the flight, the woman tripped and tore the ACL in one of her knees.

Because United is based in Illinois, the flight attendant had to file a workers' compensation claim in that state. Although it took a while for the initial claim to be resolved, the woman was awarded $46,000 in disability benefits by an arbitrator.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story. United appealed the decision and it was then overturned by the state Workers' Compensation Commission. The employee then appealed and the decision was reversed again by an Illinois judge. United appealed again and recently, a five-justice panel of the 1st District Appellate Court’s workers' compensation commission division overturned the ruling yet again.

The central issue was whether the woman should have been considered a "traveling employee" at the time or just an employee commuting to work (albeit a long commute in the exact same airplane environment she normally worked in). By loose definition, traveling employees are workers who must travel away from their employer's physical premises while performing (and in order to perform) their jobs.

If the woman had been on duty at the time, the issue of compensability might have been far less contentious. But because she was technically traveling to work at the time, the Workers' Compensation Commission and a related appellate panel decided that her injury occurred during her commute and therefore was not compensable.

The rulings in this case strongly relied on precedent set in an earlier 2013 ruling. But the details of that case are different enough (from this one) that they are open to interpretation. The recent ruling could technically be appealed to a higher court, but it is unclear if that will happen.

The bottom line is simple: the compensability of work-related injuries often hinge on technicalities. And some employers will use any technicality available to deny benefits. As such, it is a good idea for injured workers to seek the help of an experienced workers' compensation attorney.

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