Yerby v. NC Dept. of Pub. Safety – Police Workers’ Comp

Our police officers in North Carolina take an enormous risk every day they show up to work.prison

Every time they don that uniform, their lives are on the line. In fact, the FBI reports that in 2013, there were 76 officers killed in the line-of-duty in the U.S. that year, plus nearly 50,000 who suffered line-of-duty assaults, with 30 percent of those suffering serious injury as a result.

Because state legislators recognize this possible danger, laws have been enacted that bolster protections and benefits for state-employed officers who are hurt on-the-job. Part of that involves full salary for officers injured in the line-of-duty – even when he or she can no longer perform his or her regular duties – per N.C. Gen. Stat. 143-166.19. That’s a benefit most other workers do not get. Those who are unable to work are usually paid 66 2/3 of their regular weekly wage. 

However, statute goes on to say that these full-salary benefits are conditional. If an officer refuses to perform any duties to which a person might be properly assigned after a work injury, the state agency can stop paying the officer so long as that refusal continues.

Recently, an officer testing that statute had her case heard before the North Carolina Court of Appeals. In Yearby v. N.C. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, plaintiff worked as a juvenile justice officer for the state’s Department of Public Safety since 2006. She was required to monitor students in the juvenile facility. Many of these youths are violent, and while plaintiff was never assaulted by a student, she said there were a number of close calls.

For this reason, she was required her to be able to physical restrain a young person who was acting out in violence.

One day in late 2011, plaintiff fell at work and injured her head, neck, shoulder, back and right arm. Her salary continuation benefits were paid by the agency at the full rate, even though she was unable to perform all her duties.

She was diagnosed with strains in her arm and back, and was allowed to return to light duty, with restrictions on lifting with her right arm. The agency asked her to return to work in January 2012 to a light-duty role that involved supervising, monitoring and checking beds of students in the housing unit. The agency indicated she would not be carrying out these duties alone, and she was under orders not to restrain students.

However, plaintiff didn’t go back to work because she had concerns that her injuries would prevent her from defending herself against violence should a youth act out.

The agency responded by notifying her it was terminating her salary until she returned to work as requested. Plaintiff said she would return to work on the conditions she not have to work alone, would not have to enter student rooms and wouldn’t have to be in direct contact with students. Her request was denied.

Plaintiff requested a hearing to object to termination of salary, arguing that the light-duty role employer had assigned her would place her in constant danger. Even though she wasn’t required to restrain students, there was no guarantee a student wouldn’t attack and she’d have no real way to properly defend herself.

Deputy commissioner agreed the light-duty role was not suitable and reinstated her full salary. The agency appealed and appellate court reversed, finding the commission had improperly applied the state’s “suitable employment” standard, as opposed to the “duties to which a person can properly be assigned” standard.

On remand, industrial commission again found in favor of plaintiff, using the correct standard, and this time, appeals court affirmed.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Yearby v. N.C. Dep’t of Pub. Safety, March 1, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:

Court: Pain, Suffering Excluded From Workers’ Comp Lien, March 1, 2016, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Attorney Blog

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