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The law of chicken heads

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Opinion Zone,David Horrigan

Emotional injuries and related damages may be one of the most contentious areas of the law, especially when—as in this week’s Case of the Week—that emotional injury is based on an employer’s forcing a worker to wear a chicken head mask in order to get medical benefits.  Yes, this week, we go to Massachusetts to bring you the law of chicken head damages.

Poultry Problems

Karen Cappello worked full-time for Cricket Productions, where she processed orders.  Because she was a full-time employee, she asked her boss, Victor Grillo Jr., for medical coverage.

Mr. Grillo was very happy to give Ms. Cappello the medical coverage she desired, but it seems there was a catch.

Mr. Grillo said Ms. Cappello could have the medical insurance only if she wore a chicken head mask.

“No head, no payment,” Mr. Grillo wrote in an e-mail.

We’re not making this up.  We couldn’t come up with stuff this good.

Even with major medical and hospitalization coverage for her young daughter on the line, Ms. Cappello declined to don the chicken head, which was part of a complete chicken costume kept in the office.  You see, according to court papers, the employees at Cricket Productions considered themselves a “fun-loving group” that often socialized after hours.

Apparently, none of the production place’s playful pranksters thought there was anything odd about making a session in the chicken head a prerequisite to health coverage.

Ms. Cappello did.

Saying she became too depressed to work as a result of the alleged harassment, Ms. Cappello sought medical attention and was unable to work.

Of course, this is the Case of the Week, so you know what happens next.

Colonel Sanders or Jack Daniels?

Ms. Cappello decided to file a claim for her alleged injuries, and an administrative legal action ensued.  Cricket carried no workers compensation coverage, but an administrative law judge held that, because Cricket was doing the business of DTR Advertising, Inc., DTR’s insurer, The Hartford Insurance Co., was liable for Ms. Cappello’s claim.

Based on the opinion of her psychiatrist, Mark Cutler, Ms. Cappello argued Mr. Grillo’s alleged chicken head harassment was the “predominant contributing cause” of her adjustment disorder and major depressive disorder.  The administrative law judge agreed and held for Ms. Cappello, but The Hartford appealed, arguing the chicken head incident was not the predominant contributing cause of Ms. Cappello’s alleged injuries.

Hartford argued there could be other potential causes for the alleged injuries, and—on appeal to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Industrial Accidents in the case of Cappello v. DTR Advertising, Inc.—the judges noted that Ms. Cappello had received previous psychiatric treatment for issues related to a divorce and an alcohol-dependent husband.

Ms. Cappello rejected the notion that marital warfare or her husband’s close, personal relationship with Jack Daniels and Johnnie Walker caused her injuries.

It was all about that chicken head.

Foul fowl?

“Because of her preoccupation with the perceived harassment at work and her disbelief that she was being asked to do what her employer asked her to do, which she perceived as very humiliating, she has been unable to return to any work for which she is reasonably trained by virtue of her education and job experience,” Ms. Cappello’s psychiatrist told the administrative law judges.

In a legal ruling sure to shock the San Diego Chicken, Mardi Gras revelers, and others who actually enjoy wearing chicken head masks, the judges sides with Ms. Cappello.

Rejecting the insurer’s argument that there were other causes for Ms. Cappello’s psychiatric issues, the judges ruled Ms. Cappello had shown those problems were not the cause of her present injuries.  Although the judges conceded she had past psychiatric problems, they noted she had not experienced her present symptoms until the chicken head incident.

The judges held that Dr. Cutler’s medical opinion satisfied the Massachusetts standard for “predominant contributing cause” of injuries established in the Massachusetts Appeals Court decision, May’s Case, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision, Robinson’s Case.

In addition, citing Bouras v. Salem Five Cents Savings Bank, the judges held that, because Dr. Cutler’s opinion satisfied the predominant contributing cause standard, the chicken head incident was the only legal cause of her injuries.

“Because the doctor’s opinion effectively ruled out the previous stressors in the employee’s life as causes of her emotional disability, his opinion can be understood to implicate the ‘events’ at Cricket Productions as the only cause,” the judges wrote.

The Massachusetts case of the chicken head was remanded to the lower judge on additional claims Ms. Cappello made, but she was victorious on this day—so was her lawyer.

For their efforts on behalf of their client and for furthering the jurisprudence of chicken heads in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the judges awarded Ms. Cappello’s lawyer $1,488.30 in legal fees.

David Horrigan is a Washington, DC, attorney, editorial director at courtweek.com, and former staff reporter and assistant editor at The National Law Journal.  His articles have appeared also in Law Technology News, The American Lawyer, The New York Law Journal, Corporate Counsel, Texas Lawyer, Florida Lawyer, and Daily Business Review. E-Mail: dhorrigan@courtweek.com

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