Watertown woman wins worker’s compensation for a leg injury that later nearly led to her death

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Court Gavel

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A hearing examiner has ruled in favor of a kindergarten teacher from the Watertown school district who sought worker’s compensation for injuries suffered in her classroom four years ago.

Michelle “Shelly” Pieper became hurt Thursday, March 2, 2017, after a student in her class threw a chair that struck her left leg. She wound up being hospitalized three times and, according to her husband, and nearly died.

Michelle “Shelly” Pieper. Courtesy: Jason Pieper

The administrative law judge is now determining the amount that Pieper will receive for her injuries and interest owed because of years spent contesting the case. Shelly’s husband, Jason Pieper, said Monday he expects the amount to be about $600,000.

According to the official decision, Shelly Pieper told the school principal that same day about the incident and came back to work the next day. On Saturday, because her leg continued to hurt, she called the school principal and said she wouldn’t be in Monday. She didn’t work that week.

The following Saturday, her husband took Shelly to the Avera McKennan emergency room in Sioux Falls, where she was admitted in critical condition with a dangerously high blood INR of 8.8, a 160 pulse and a liver in failure. She was found to have a blood clot in the leg, as well as a potentially deadly infection known as sepsis, and pneumonia.

She stayed 17 days in the hospital. After her March 28 discharge, she returned to work in late May 2017. On September 18, 2017, her husband found her on the bathroom floor having seizures, according to the official decision. An air ambulance flew her to Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minnesota, where she stayed 10 days. On April 17, 2018, she had her left knee replaced by a Mayo surgeon.

The Watertown school district purchases worker’s compensation coverage through a pool operated by the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. The statewide organization in turn contracts with a Sioux Falls-based business known as Claims Associates. The business paid two physicians to review parts of Pieper’s medical history and then contested her claim, contending there were other reasons for her health problems.

The administrative law judge, Catherine Williamson, decided a full outside review by another physician, Jared Sutton, hired by the Piepers, was more thorough and had greater weight than Shelly Pieper’s local primary care physician, Jon McAreavey, or the two whom Claims Associates paid, Randal Wojciehoski and Michael Devish, one of Avera McKennan’s team who worked on her. Williamson said she gives less weight to opinions reached without reviewing a full history.

Wade Pogany, executive director for the school boards organization, told KELOLAND News in an email Monday, “No comment on the case. We are reviewing the decision.”

According to Kirsten Jasper, general counsel for the bureau that oversees the hearing examiners, “Regarding administrative matters in general, South Dakota law provides that once a final decision and final order has been issued the matter can be appealed, by any aggrieved party, to state circuit court.  After a decision from state circuit court a matter then can be appealed to the (South Dakota) Supreme Court.”

The administrative judge denied the Piepers’ request for attorney fees. Jason Pieper said Monday that lawyers Seamus Culhane and Liam Culhane of Watertown worked his wife’s case on a contingency arrangement, meaning payment depended on outcome. Seamus Culhane said, “Because of the pending nature of this we cannot comment.”

Jason Pieper said Shelly and he appreciated the state Department of Labor and Regulation and the administrative law judges who had worked on her claim. “Shelly was fortunate to have excellent attorneys who fought hard to validate her claim.  Most people have no comprehension what teachers like Shelly are subjected to on a daily basis,” he said.

The Piepers’ experience led to Jason Pieper testifying at the state Capitol earlier this year on HB 1242. The bill failed. He wanted the Legislature to require employees to be able to see correspondence about themselves that was between their employers or their policy providers and any third party who provides medical services or health care to that employee.

A majority on the House Commerce and Energy Committee agreed with opponents who said Pieper should have first taken the proposal to the state worker’s compensation advisory committee.

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