Irrational fear no basis for worker's comp

In1984, Mary Guess began working as an assembly line worker for Sharp Manufacturing Company of America, located in Tennessee. On Nov. 6, 1998, one of Guess's co-workers lacerated his hand, which resulted in some of his blood getting on Guess's hand. While

Guess
v.
Sharp Manufacturing Co. of America,
114 S.W.2d 481 (Tenn.Supp.Ct. 2003),
Supreme Court of Tennessee,
Aug. 27, 2003.

In1984, Mary Guess began working as an assembly line worker for Sharp Manufacturing Company of America, located in Tennessee. On Nov. 6, 1998, one of Guess's co-workers lacerated his hand, which resulted in some of his blood getting on Guess's hand. While Guess was not injured, she said she had open cuts on her hands as well as a fresh manicure. Guess also said, as a result of getting blood on her hands, she became hysterical because she believed her co-worker was HIV positive. She believed this because her co-worker was sick all the time, he appeared frail, he had friends at work who had died of AIDS, and he "looked and acted gay." Guess said she began having panic attacks after the incident. Her family doctor told her not to work because of "agitated depression."

Guess filed a claim for workers'-compensation benefits, arguing that she had suffered a chronic mental disorder stemming from her perceived exposure to HIV. At trial, one of Guess's doctors testified that she suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder. Another said she was vocationally impaired because she could not engage in assembly line or production work where blood could be shed, or in work requiring a great deal of concentration or focus. A doctor also testified that Guess had been tested five times for HIV and that all five tests were negative.

This doctor said Guess's chance of becoming infected was infinitely small under the circumstances of the November 1998 incident. The county court awarded Guess benefits, finding that she had suffered a permanent partial disability as a result of the psychological consequences of the incident.

The case went to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, where Sharp argued that because Guess offered no credible proof she was actually exposed to HIV-contaminated blood, there was no basis for her fear and therefore did not suffer a compensable injury. The Tennessee high court agreed Guess was not entitled to workers' comp because she had not demonstrated she was actually exposed to HIV. The court stated, "We will not award disability benefits to a claimant who suffers from an irrational fear of exposure to HIV when no proof exists of exposure via a medically recognized transmission channel."

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