Safety and OSHA News

Did company fire injured worker because he was on light duty?

If an injured worker who is on light duty breaks a company rule, can you fire him without incurring extra workers’ compensation costs?

Darren Pollack worked for Southern Wine & Spirits of America in South Carolina as a drivers’ supervisor. One day, he injured his back while lifting a case of alcohol. He returned to work five days later with a doctor’s order not to lift anything weighing more than 15 pounds. The company accommodated Pollack’s lifting restriction with light duty.

Two months later, Pollack went to the scene of a crash involving a company vehicle assigned to another employee. After completing his work at the scene, Pollack’s company vehicle hit the side of the other company vehicle involved in the crash.

Pollack didn’t report the incident involving the two company vehicles because the damage was minor: just scratches.

However, Southern’s company policy said, “All accidents and incidents with a vehicle must be reported, whether or not there is damage to the Company vehicle, another vehicle, or other property … Failure to report an accident will result in immediate termination.”

When the company found out about the incident involving the two company vehicles from the other driver, it suspended Pollack pending an investigation.

Southern’s corporate office reviewed the incident, and Pollack was fired for his failure to report it.

Then Pollack filed for temporary total disability (TTD) under workers’ compensation. Southern opposed his application, and a hearing was held.

A commissioner denied Pollack’s request for TTD because he was fired for cause for violating company policy. The appellate panel of the state Workers’ Compensation Commission upheld the commissioner’s decision. Pollack appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Was employer looking for a reason to fire him?

It appeared to the court that Pollack was arguing that TTD benefits should be paid to an injured worker who is discharged from an accommodated, light duty position.

The court rejected that argument noting that Pollack’s interpretation of the law would insulate injured employees who engage in misconduct while on light duty from discipline by their employers.

In reviewing the record, the court said another possibility was considered but rejected:

“We are persuaded the single commissioner and the Commission thoughtfully considered the evidence, remaining sensitive to an employer’s possible motivation to ‘look for’ a reason to fire an injured worker.”

In other words, the company in this case didn’t fire Pollack because it was just out to get him because he was on light duty due to a work injury.

The court said the ruling denying Pollack TTD benefits under workers’ compensation should stand.

What do you think about the court’s ruling? Let us know in the comments below.

(Darren L. Pollack v. Southern Wine & Spirits of America, SC Supreme Court, No. 2011-200466, 7/17/13)

For more information on workers’ compensation, see Safety News Alert’s Recommended Safety Links page.

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Comments

  1. The courts, worker’s compensation boards, and OSHA need to lose the “they were out to get him because he was injured” attitude. It’s 2013! We all know the rules (though, unfortunately there are still a few employer’s that try to get around them)! Had the court ruled in the former employee’s favor, it would have set a precedent that would send many smaller companies down the tubes. If he broke a rule that could lead to termination then he broke the rule, period. It shouldn’t matter if he is on light duty, no more than it should matter if he was the boss’s son or the employee of the year!

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