In Re: Snakes

By Judge Brian Addingtion, Kingsport

Snakes. You either love them or hate them. 

I love them. The snake in this photo was innocently warming himself inside my outbuilding this spring. He was two feet long. I have removed a snake from the same location every spring for the last seven years. The one this spring was the smallest so far. My wife is a hater, so I moved Mr. Snake to the bushes outside the building. 

The newest member of the Addington family was recently ousted from the outbuilding.

The national news recently discussed a case of a customer who went to a home improvement store in Denver, North Carolina, with the intention to buy his wife some flowers but suffered a copperhead bite. At first, the local news reported this matter as an employee bitten by a snake. 

Being a workers’ compensation judge, naturally, I turned this scenario over and over in my mind. I then did a quick search for a Tennessee Workers’ Compensation case involving a real snake — but found one involving fake snakes instead. Never let it be said that workers’ compensation law is boring.

In Transport Service, LLC v. Allen, Mr. Allen suffered a compensable shoulder injury. When released for light-duty work, Mr. Allen’s co-workers harassed him by hiding wooden and rubber snakes in areas where he would find them. He claimed he suffered a mental injury, as these incidents caused him to suffer anxiety and depression. Two psychiatrists examined Mr. Allen. One psychiatrist opined he suffered pre-existing anxiety and his work did not aggravate his condition. The other opined the employee suffered a compensable injury. 

The trial court found he suffered a compensable mental injury, but the Special Workers’ Compensation Panel of the Supreme Court reversed, because the employee failed to tell the expert psychiatrist the trial court accredited about his previous psychiatric treatment. When this prior treatment was brought to the expert’s attention, the expert did not seem to care. This caused the Panel to give greater weight to the expert who opined the employee did not suffer a mental injury from the fake snakes. Although Mr. Allen ultimately did not succeed, he did prevail at the trial level. Perhaps with a more thorough examination by the psychiatrist, he might have prevailed on appeal.   

The fear of snakes is real. Someone can be frightened whether the snake is real or fake; just ask my wife or Mr. Allen. No one wants a workplace where laughter is prohibited. But there’s a time and a place, people. The fear of a snake and fears of other things, real or imagined, should be duly considered by employers and employees alike. As the saying goes, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. 

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