On an icy and cold Valentine's Day in 2011, Enid meat packing plant worker Tammie Darlene Rivera fell on her way to her car to smoke a cigarette during a break.
Rivera, 51, still is waiting to see whether she will get workers' compensation benefits for an injury to her left knee because of the fall.
Her case is an example of how complicated workers' comp law has become. Judges looking at the same facts and legal precedents have ruled in her favor once and against her twice. She now is asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to decide.
“Each case stands on its own set of facts and circumstances,” the plant's attorney, W. Jeffrey Dasovich, wrote in a legal filing about such cases. “No two are alike.”
Workers' comp reform is expected to be a major issue in the upcoming session of the state Legislature. Republican leaders plan to push for a major overhaul of the workers' compensation system.
“We'd like to see some dramatic changes that really are meaningful,” Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman said in December.
About the case
Rivera had worked at Advance Food Co. for more than a year when she fell in the plant parking lot. She was fired a few days later.
She filed a workers' compensation claim seeking medical treatment for an injury to her left knee. She also sought eight weeks of benefits because of a total temporary disability.
“I slipped and fell on ice and snow, and my leg went out from underneath me, went sideways,” Rivera testified at a hearing in July 2011.
She testified she slipped while walking to her car to smoke a cigarette and drink tea during a paid break. She said she decided not to go to the company's outdoor smoking area that day because employees weren't allowed to have food and drink there.
Advance Food Co. did not allow smoking inside the plant for sanitary reasons. The company did let employees have drinks and eat snacks inside the plant.
Rivera testified a supervisor had instructed employees to go to their cars if they wanted to both smoke and drink on breaks.
The first judge on her case denied her request.
Workers' Compensation Judge William R. Foster Jr. ruled in July 2011 that Rivera “was not injured in the course and scope of her employment.”
The judge pointed to a 1986 Oklahoma Supreme Court opinion denying benefits to a car salesman who was injured from a fall on snow while walking to a truck to get a pack of cigarettes.
Next to look at Rivera's case was a panel of three workers' compensation judges.
In a unanimous order, the panel ruled in October 2011 that she did suffer a knee injury arising out of and in the course of her employment.
The panel ordered the company to provide her medical treatment to correct her condition.
The latest to look at the case was a panel of three judges on the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals. In a unanimous opinion Dec. 7, 2012, those three judges ruled Rivera was not entitled to workers' compensation benefits.
“We acknowledge that some activities such as eating and/or drinking may be considered a necessary incident of employment, as they are necessarily contemplated and inevitable,” wrote Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals Judge Bay Mitchell.
“However, the fact that Claimant desired to consume a beverage simultaneously with her cigarette does not transform the purpose for her travel from personal to work-related. She could have easily consumed a beverage inside the work premises and then smoked her cigarette in the designated smoking area,” the judge wrote.
“Claimant made a choice — purely beneficial to herself personally — to enjoy a drink and a smoke simultaneously in her own vehicle.
“Further, we find Claimant's assertion that Employer permitted this activity lacks evidentiary support.”
Rivera's attorneys declined to comment until after the Oklahoma Supreme Court makes a ruling.
Rivera, who had an address in Dewey in 2011, could not be reached for comment. She also did not respond to messages left at a phone number for her.