Workers Compensation Bad Faith
Hunton v. Zurich
The workers’ compensation system puts the financial burden for work-related injuries on industries rather than the workers who build those industries. The idea behind the workers’ compensation system is a trade-off: the worker gives up fundamental rights, but in exchange, gets a system designed to ensure expedited medical and wage benefits where the threshold for coverage is low and fault is irrelevant.
Bryan Hunton was injured while working for Sundt Construction Company, his employer of 17 years. Zurich was Sundt’s workers’ compensation carrier. Zurich denied Bryan’s clearly compensable, commonplace back injury because Sundt — its large, premium-paying customer — wanted it denied. The bad faith continued following the denial when Zurich’s own independent medical examiner told Zurich that this was a valid, compensable, on-the-job injury; Zurich ignored the opinion and tried to bury it. Bryan was forced to hire an attorney specializing in workers compensation – Debra Runbeck. Ms. Runbeck managed to get the decision reversed, but even then, Zurich’s bad faith conduct persisted. After Zurich was forced to accept the claim, it terminated Hunton’s benefits. The evidence at trial showed that Zurich, again, did so to appease Sundt. Although Zurich had accepted the claim and was paying benefits by the time the bad faith trial began, its bad faith conduct had caused Bryan to suffer significant, irreversible harm. Following the three-week trial, the jury awarded Bryan $1,500,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.