Facts Matter: IL Appellate Court Shows Importance of Thorough & Timely Accident Investigation

The Appellate Court recently affirmed a Commission decision that the petitioner had failed to prove an accident in ZENO PIECHOWICZ, Appellant, v. ILLINOIS WORKERS’ COMPENSATION COMMISSION et al., (E.B. Commercial, Inc.; Am.Prop. Mgmt. Co. of Illinois, Inc.; & Brittany Place Condo. Ass’n, Appellees)., 2018 IL App (1st) 171084WC-U.  A close look at this decision highlights the importance of early investigation of potential WC claims.

The petitioner, a maintenance worker, had alleged that, on December 24, 2013, Scott Walczak, who worked with his employer, had asked him to check the heating in each of their buildings and to distribute fliers.  After which, he would be allowed to leave work at 3 PM that day.  The petitioner further testified that, “shortly after 3 PM,” while he was checking on the last building he slipped and fell on icy stairs, injuring his right hand, elbow, and ribs.  He stated that his watch, glasses,and phone had been broken in the fall. Of particular importance to this case, the petitioner submitted his cellphone records into evidence, which showed him placing phone calls from various locations throughout that day.  When cross examined as to why his cell phone never used a cell phone tower near the area of the alleged accident after 2:30 PM that day, the petitioner stated that, “I don’t know how that is the telephone – how they transfer the stations.  I don’t know how they do that, but I was at work.” 

The employer disputed the petitioner’s account of the alleged accident.  One of the petitioner’s supervisors, Eva Ayres, testified that she had told the petitioner that, on December 24, 2013, the office was closing at 1 PM and also that she had called the petitioner at 2 PM on that day to tell him he could go home.  She stated that the petitioner had informed him at that time that “nothing was going on.” She also testified that, on December 26, 2013, she investigated the alleged site of the accident and did not find any debris from a broken phone, watch,or glasses, or any other evidence that the claimant’s accident had occurred. 

Scott Walczak also testified for the respondent, asserting that he had never asked the petitioner to check the heaters or to distribute fliers that day.  The boilers and heating systems were checked twice per week, so Walczak had investigated the logs for the heating systems and discovered that the petitioner had signed off on checking the heating systems for all 11 buildings on December 23, 2013, not December 24,2013.

The Commission and Appellate Court found the petitioner’s testimony not to be credible, and found that he failed to prove that an accident had occurred.  The Commission noted that the petitioner offered multiple “offer[ed] multiple versions of events concerning his accident.”  The Commission also highlighted the fact that the petitioner’s phone records placed him at locations other than the alleged location of accident between 2:37 and 3:11 PM that day, as well as the fact that his boss had told the petitioner the he could go home at 2 PM.  The testimony of Walczak regarding the logs that indicated the heating systems had been checked the day before was also given significant weight. 

The key takeaways from this case:  It is always crucially important for employers to perform a thorough investigation of the accident in a timely manner after the alleged accident occurs. In this instance, the accident occurred right around Christmas and it would have been understandable for the individuals involved to delay their investigation, but they quickly performed an investigation on December 26 failed to show any indications of the fall or broken items, and also showed that the petitioner had checked the heating systems on December 23 rather than December 24.  Their testimony regarding that investigation was critical in this case.

Be sure to check in with the I&F blog for more updates on all the latest workers’ compensation cases throughout the Midwest!

Thanks to attorney Michael Bantz for the excellent summary.  Michael represents Illinois employers from the firm’s Champaign office.

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