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Some West Virginia businesses have implemented COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees. While the West Virginia COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act (W. Va. Code § 55-19-1 through § 55-19-9) protects people, businesses, and entities from some COVID-19 related claims, the Act does not address whether employees who suffer an injury from a COVID-19 vaccine mandated by their employers may bring a workers' compensation claim. This issue has not yet come before West Virginia courts and there is no state case law on the subject.
To receive benefits under West Virginia workers’ compensation law, an employee must show the employee sustained (1) a personal injury (2) in the course of employment and (3) resulting from that employment. W. Va. Code §23-4-1(a). Arguably, if a COVID-19 vaccine is a required condition of employment and an employee receives the vaccine pursuant to that mandate, an employee injured by the vaccine may be able to show that they were injured in the course of and as a result of that employment. Relevant factors may include whether the vaccine was received by the employee on-site and during work hours or on the employee’s personal time and at a different location other than the employee’s work location.
Vaccine injuries are rare, and even if the employer mandates the vaccine, causation may be difficult to prove. The employee must prove that the injury was a direct result of the vaccine rather than some other source. Because of the rarity of COVID-19 vaccine injuries beyond the typical vaccine after-effects (sore arm, fever, mild symptoms), true injury resulting from an employer-mandated COVID-19 vaccine will likely be infrequent and difficult to attribute to the vaccine. Workers’ compensation insurance carriers and third-party administrators should require proof of a definitive diagnosis or injury directly related to the COVID-19 vaccine before holding the injury compensable.
While some employees may attempt to avoid the exclusive remedies provided by workers' compensation by asserting a deliberate intent claim, the West Virginia COVID-19 Jobs Protection Act may insulate employers from such claims. The Act specifically insulates employers from deliberate intent claims for COVID-19 infections and may also apply to injuries from vaccine mandates. This issue has not been litigated in West Virginia.
Employers should also be mindful of the West Virginia Legislature's recent passage of House Bill 335 that will allow employees to obtain medical or religious exemptions from their employers’ vaccine mandates. The bill was signed by Governor Jim Justice on October 22, 2021, and will go into effect 90 days thereafter.
Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC
300 Kanawha Blvd, E.
Charleston, WV 25301
Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC is the West Virginia member of the National Workers' Compensation Defense Network. The NWCDN is a nationwide network of defense firms specializing in protecting employers and carriers in workers' compensation claims and regulatory matters. For more information, visit www.nwcdn.com.