Court Gives Frostbite Disability Claim The Cold Shoulder

Randi Klein Hyatt
Randi Klein Hyatt

In case you need another reason to bundle up this winter, the Third Circuit recently affirmed a decision to dismiss a truck driver’s claim that his frostbite constitutes a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Wilson v. Iron Tiger Logistics, Inc., No. 14-4470 (3d Cir., Oct. 28, 2015).

The driver, Robert Wilson, experienced frostbite on several fingers while unloading trucks in approximately -25 degree weather in Canada.  After a worker’s compensation leave, Wilson returned to work with very few doctors’ restrictions, only that he avoid prolonged exposure to cold and be able to warm his fingers immediately upon feeling fingertip pain.  Accordingly, his employer, Iron Tiger Logistics, instructed Wilson to wear gloves, to take breaks to warm up his hands, and to use customers’ indoor facilities to warm up.  Wilson was later terminated after refusing to make a delivery in Ottawa.  Iron Tiger had assured Wilson that he could warm his hands, and that the temperature was a (relatively warm?) 20 degrees.  But, Wilson later put it, “There was no way in hell I was going to Canada.”

Wilson sued for disability discrimination, claiming that Iron Tiger discriminated against him in violation of the ADA when it terminated his employment.  Iron Tiger moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Wilson’s frostbite does not render him “disabled” within the meaning of the ADA.  The federal district court agreed with Iron Tiger and found that Wilson had not met the threshold definition of “disability.”

The Third Circuit affirmed the decision to dismiss.  To qualify as disabled under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.  See 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1).   The Court held that Wilson had not submitted sufficient evidence to prove that he was substantially limited in any major life activity, particularly given that his lack of doctors’ restrictions.  Op. at 6.  Moreover, his frostbite pain occurred only occasionally and he maintained full function of his hands.  In fact, Wilson admitted that when he returned to his job at Iron Tiger, he worked as if “he hadn’t skipped a beat.”  Id.

The Court also rejected Wilson’s argument that his receiving worker’s compensation benefits proves that Iron Tiger saw him as “disabled.” The Court determined that although worker’s compensation awards may provide some evidence of disability, they do not mandate a finding of ADA-covered disability.  Op. at 7.  Because he did not meet the definition of disabled, Wilson’s discrimination claim was left thawing out.

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