Lineman's willful misconduct triggers adoption of new test, denial of benefits
Case name: Mitchell v. Fayetteville Public Utilities, No. M2011-00410-SC-R3-WC (Tenn. 05/08/12).
Ruling: The Tennessee Supreme Court held that a lineman was not entitled to benefits because he willfully failed to follow his employer's safety rule.
means: In Tennessee, to show that a worker engaged in willful misconduct, an employer must show the worker had actual notice of the rule, he understood the danger involved in violating the rule, the employer enforced the rule, and the worker lacked a valid excuse for violating the rule.
Summary: A lineman for a utility service was working with a crew to replace a power pole. While he was in a bucket lift near the top of the new pole, a copper ground wire that he held in his hand came into contact with a transformer on the old pole 5 feet below. He suffered electrical burns to his hands and side. The lineman said he thought he was in a "safe zone." He sought benefits. The utility service denied benefits because the lineman removed his protective gloves before attempting to install metal staples on the pole, a violation of the utility service's safety policy. The Tennessee Supreme Court held that he was not entitled to benefits.
Tennessee law disallows compensation for an injury due to a worker's "willful misconduct . . . or willful failure or refusal to use a safety appliance." Noting the close relationship between willful misconduct and the willful failure to use a safety appliance, the court adopted a four-part test to create a uniform approach to analyze these defenses. The employer must show the worker had actual notice of the rule, he understood the danger involved in violating the rule, the employer enforced the rule, and the worker lacked a valid excuse for violating the rule.
Here, the lineman knew the policy. He appreciated the danger involved in a violation and conceded that the rule was enforced. The court said that his admission that he knew the safety policy and elected to take the gloves off anyway established that his act was willful and not merely negligent or reckless. Also, his explanation that he saved time or found it easier to apply the staple without the gloves was not a valid excuse.
A dissenting judge opined that the lineman's "removal of his gloves when he assumed he was in a safe zone should not be deemed willful misconduct." Also, the judge said that the test the majority adopted would encourage the use of the willful misconduct defense when the worker's behavior is no more than negligent, reckless, or the result of bad judgment.
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July 9, 2012
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