Smurfit Stone worker alleges he lost job over work comp claim

Kelly Holleran Dec. 8, 2011, 2:00am

A man has filed suit against his former employer, alleging he lost his job because he fought to obtain his workers' compensation benefits.

Albert Varel claims he was working at defendant Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation on Dec. 5, 2000, when he tripped and fell over a hose, causing injuries to his right shoulder. At the time of the incident, Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation allegedly was attempting to conceal work-related injuries. It urged Varel to instead present an accident claim to Boston Mutual Insurance as a non-employment accident, according to the complaint filed Dec. 5 in Madison County Circuit Court.

However, Varel decided to file a workers' compensation application for adjustment of claim on Nov. 13, 2003, in an attempt to obtain benefits for the December 2000 occurrence, the suit states. When he filed his application, Varel also notified Smurfit-Stone Container's corporate office that employees were encouraged to make claims against Boston Mutual instead of workers' compensation claims, the complaint says.

In retaliation for Varel's persistent effort to obtain a workers' compensation clam, he alleges Smurfit-Stone Container sought to fire him. At first, the company agreed to pay Varel the workers' compensation money, but only under the condition that he would resign from his position, which he had held with the company since 1965, according to the complaint.

Varel refused to resign. Eventually, on July 2, 2008, he and his employer reached an agreement in which Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation would provide him with workers' compensation benefits, the suit states.

Still, Smurfit-Stone remained upset about Varel's filing and attempted to find ways to terminate his employment, the complaint says.

"Specifically, on February 9, 2009, Defendant Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation ordered Plaintiff to sign a "Last Chance Agreement" threatening Plaintiff that any damage to company property which was Plaintiff Albert Varel's fault would result in immediate termination," the suit states.

On Feb. 17, 2009, Varel was driving a truck, following a transfer cart, when the transfer cart suddenly stopped moving, causing Varel to collide with it. Because of the resulting damage to the vehicles, Varel lost his job on Feb. 20, 2009, according to the complaint.

"The accident was merely a pretextual reason for discharging Plaintiff Albert Varel assumed in order to cloak the Defendant's real intention of terminating Plaintiff Albert Varel for filing his Workers' Compensation Application for Adjustment of Claim and reporting Defendant Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation policy of concealing on-the-job injuries and fraudulently reporting those injuries as non work related in order to make claims against Boston Mutual Insurance under accident and sickness benefits," the suit states.

Because of his job loss, Varel claims he has suffered emotional pain, embarrassment, humiliation and distress and lost wages.

In his complaint, Varel is seeking a judgment of more than $50,000, plus unspecified punitive damages, attroney's fees and costs.

John H. Leskera of the Leskera Law Firm in Collinsville will be representing him.

Madison County Circuit Court case number: 11-L-1292.

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