A few weeks ago Keith Daniel, a Minneapolis firefighter who’d injured his ankle on the job, received a $500,000 jury verdict against the Fire Department. Because of the injury, he needed to wear special tennis shoes most of the time to avoid painful swelling of his feet, but he could wear regular boots or other required footwear when on a rescue or fire-fighting run. The Fire Department, however, insisted that he wear regulation footwear all the time. For employment lawyers this case would have been an open and shut blatant violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act for failure to accommodate a minor disability, but a thirty-year old decision from the Minnesota Supreme Court stood in the way.
Under a case called Karst v. F.C. Hayer Co., if a person required reasonable accommodation at work after an injury at home, the employer would have to allow it. But if the injury occurred at work, and the employee had received Workers Compensation, no accommodation was required. To be clear, the employee would not be seeking double recovery. Medical expenses and lost wages paid for by Workers Compensation would not be the basis for a claim, only lost wages and other harm caused by a subsequent failure to accommodate. No matter, said the Karst court. The Workers’ Compensation Act provided a completely exclusive remedy.
To win his case, Mr. Daniel had to get the Minnesota Supreme Court to reverse its decision in Karst, which it did this February, after the case was ably argued by Mr. Daniel’s lawyer, Joshua Williams. The Court held that claims under the Minnesota Human Rights Act and The Workers’ Compensation Act could “coexist.” The Human Rights Act “exists to protect an employee’s civil rights; it provides the exclusive remedy for discrimination injuries caused by any employer conduct that the statute defines as ‘unfair.’ The Workers’ Compensation Act, by contrast, provides the exclusive remedy for financial and medical losses arising from a work-related ‘personal injury.’”
And so Mr. Daniel was allowed to take his case before a jury, which found resoundingly in his favor. It didn’t hurt that the evidence showed wearing tennis shoes in the firehouse was no big deal. In fact, the captain in charge of Mr. Daniel’s firehouse wore them all the time. Mr. Daniel, however, had been forced to retire. Now the law allows a remedy for such injustice.