A worker who filed his workers compensation claim more than two years after he was injured at the direction of his then-employer will have another chance to argue his entitlement to comp benefits, according to a Supreme Court of Wyoming ruling released on Friday.
In early 2014, Jody Sweetalla injured his left shoulder when he attempted to open a garage door while working for Rock Springs, Wyoming-based Legend Services Inc., an oil drilling company which requested that he not file an injury report with the state Workers’ Compensation Division of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. In exchange for not filing a claim, he would continue to collect his salary and would have his out-of-pocket medical expenses for two necessary shoulder surgeries covered, plus rehabilitation and time off, according to documents in In the matter of the Workers’ Compensation Claim of: Jody Sweetalla v. State of Wyoming, et. al., filed in Cheyenne.
At the end of 2015, however, Legend Services fired him, allegedly saying it would no longer pay his medical expenses, according to documents chronicling Mr. Sweetalla’s subsequent application in 2016 for comp benefits, which were eventually denied because of the one-year statute of limitations.
Following this denial, he requested a hearing, arguing in paperwork that his “employer instructed me not to file for workers’ compensation. Both my employer and the Division are estopped from raising the delay in filing as a bar to the claim."
A state district court affirmed the state’s order to deny benefits on the basis that Mr. Sweetalla filed his claim too late. On appeal to the state’s highest court, a unanimous ruling by five judges found that the estoppel did not apply on the issue of the employer’s request to not file a workers comp claim—dubbed an act of “fraud” in court documents—but it did apply in regard to the state’s handling of Mr. Sweetalla’s claim, a process that led to “confusion” for the worker.
On remanding the issue of compensability back to a lower court, the judge wrote that “Mr. Sweetalla sufficiently demonstrated on the record ‘that he relied, to his detriment’ on the Division's incorrect and misleading communications” and that his “reliance on the Division's conduct was detrimental.”
The employer and attorneys involved in the case could not immediately be reached for comment.