ANNAPOLIS – School volunteers who are injured on the job are not entitled to weekly disability payments under the state workers’ compensation law, Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
The court, splitting 6-1, upheld a lower court ruling in the case of Mary Hundt, a volunteer lunch aide who slipped on a stray carrot in a Baltimore school cafeteria and injured her knee.
The Workers’ Compensation Commission determined that the Baltimore school system should pay Hundt’s medical bills. Doctors agreed that she would be partially disabled from the accident, according to court documents.
Hundt, 61, had volunteered for the Baltimore schools since 1966, her lawyers said. She liked to spend time with her grandchildren and do something nice for the city, they said.
But under the Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act, weekly disability payments to compensate people for lost income are based on a paycheck. Since Hundt was a volunteer, the commission found she did not meet the standards.
She appealed to the Baltimore City Circuit Court, arguing that she was entitled to at least $50 dollars a week, one of the minimum levels of compensation provided for in the law.
The Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, upheld the Circuit Court decision to dismiss Hundt’s case. “Because, as an unpaid volunteer, she had no average weekly wage,” Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote for the majority, “she was not entitled to weekly monetary benefits.”
The Department of Education does not track specific numbers of school volunteers. But schools regularly use volunteers as tutors, lunch aides, receptionists library workers, hall monitors or field trip police, according to department spokesman Ronald Peiffer.
Peiffer said there have been “very, very few” volunteers seriously injured on the job. “This is sort of the first,” he said.
Lawyers representing Baltimore in the case declined to comment.
Mark Herman, a lawyer for Hundt, said that denying disability payments to volunteers simply because they are not paid was short-sighted.
“Volunteers are an integral force behind the day-to-day operation of hospitals, schools, charities, just to name a few,” Herman wrote in a brief. “Nonetheless, they are often times exposed to the same work environment dangers. This case represents a serious attack against volunteer rights.”
Judge John C. Eldridge, who wrote the dissenting opinion in the case, warned that school volunteers who hold regular jobs could suffer a significant loss of income. If a volunteer were seriously hurt, the school would not be required to pay them for missed work under the ruling, he said.
Eldridge also wrote that in cases where the law is murky, judges should try to interpret it broadly to include many people under its “benevolent purposes.”
The state expanded workers’ compensation laws to include voluntary school aides in 1972. The law clearly says schools should cover medical expenses of volunteers injured on the job. It is ambiguous about whether they are entitled to weekly wage compensation, the court said.
Because lawmakers did not include a formula to calculate weekly payments to volunteers, the court ruled that the law was not intended to provide that benefit.
After two operations, Hundt still limps. Her knee buckles and she has trouble getting around, her lawyers said.
“There’s no reason that volunteers should be singly treated like this because they are an essential part of the economy, Herman said, “they’re an essential part of the school system. They really got slammed by this.” -30-