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Arizona Appeals Court Awards Workers’ Compensation Benefits to Employee Who Contracted COVID-19 While On the Job

According to a report from the Arizona Capitol Times, an appellate court in Arizona has awarded workers’ compensation benefits to the family of a worker who contracted COVID-19 while on the job. In the case of Western Millwork, Cincinnati Insurance Co. v. Zerby, an appellate court ruled in favor of the widow of a man who passed away from complications related to COVID-19. The opinion was released by the Court of Appeals of Arizona, Division 1 on September 21st, 2023. Here, our Phoenix workers’ compensation lawyer provides an overview of the court’s decision in this case. 

Case Review: Western Millwork, Cincinnati Insurance Co. v. Zerby

Background and Facts

In 2020, a man named Kenneth Zerby was employed as a design engineer for a company called Western Millwork—a Phoenix, AZ based architectural and interiors manufacturer. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the region in the Spring of 2020, Western Millwork kept the vast majority of its employees—including Mr. Zerby—in the office. The company followed CDC guidelines in an effort to limit the spread of the virus in the workplace. In October, Mr. Zerby contracted the COVID-19 virus. Unfortunately, he had severe complications and lost his life to the virus. His wife filed a workers’ compensation claim on the grounds that he contracted the virus from a co-worker while in the course and scope of his employment. 

The Key Legal Issues

During a hearing concerning the source of Mr. Zerby’s COVID-19 infection, there was conflicting testimony presented by the parties. A medical expert for his surviving spouse argued that Mr. Zerby likely contracted the virus from an infected co-worker on October 12th, 2020. The expert emphasized that an individual is contagious two days before showing symptoms. He discounted the possibility that the infection came from a dinner party Zerby attended on October 17th. 

The employer’s medical expert disagreement. The medical expert testified that a person would need approximately “15 minutes of direct contact” and proximity of “less than six feet “to contract the virus—unless the infected person was actively coughing or sneezing. Given the brevity of the interaction between Mr. Zerby and his infected co-worker on October 12th, the medical expert for the employer was skeptical that the interaction was the source of the infection.

Upon hearing the testimony from the competing medical experts and reviewing the other evidence presented, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) ruled in favor of the surviving spouse. The ALJ determined that Mr. Zerby was likely subject to a COVID-19 exposure risk in his workplace that was greater than that faced by the general public. The employer appealed. The Court of Appeals of Arizona was tasked with determining the court standard in workplace disease cases. 

Arizona Appeals Court Decision

Upon review, the Court of Appeals of Arizona, Division 1 upheld the ALJ’s decision—ruling that the surviving spouse was entitled to workers’ compensation death benefits. Notably, the appellate court emphasized that Arizona law grants compensation to employees for losses from injuries or death incurred during the course of their employment. It specifies compensation for injuries due to accidents at work or for diseases that are specific to certain professions, excluding common diseases affecting the general public. Notably, while COVID-19 is not labeled as an occupational disease, it can be classified as an “accident” under our state’s workers’ compensation framework. A worker who contracts COVID-19 on the job—which is what the ALJ determined happened in this case based on the presented facts—is entitled to workers’ comp benefits. 

Workers Need the Maximum Available Financial Support 

If you suffered an injury or developed an illness while on the job, it is imperative that you are able to effectively navigate the system so that you can secure the full and fair compensation that you deserve. It is not uncommon to have a lot of questions about the workers’ compensation claims process—especially if you are dealing with an unusual issue. The right Arizona workers’ compensation lawyer can review your case, explain the process, and help you take action to secure the maximum financial benefits. Do not wait to seek professional legal representation. 

Contact Our Phoenix, AZ Workers’ Compensation Attorney Today

At Snow, Carpio and Weekley, PLC, our Phoenix workers’ compensation lawyer is standing by, ready to help. Preparing to file a workers’ comp claim or a workers’ comp appeal? We have the professional experience you can trust. Give us a call now(877) 370-5788 or connect with us directly online for your no cost, no obligation consultation. With legal offices in Phoenix, Tucson, Yuma, Flagstaff, and Lake Havasu, we fight for the rights of injured workers throughout Arizona.

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