Safety and OSHA News

Employee disobeyed a direct safety rule: Can he get workers’ comp?

A supervisor told this worker how to perform part of his job. The employee ignored the supervisor and did it his own way, resulting in serious injuries. Can the injured employee get workers’ comp? 

Adrian Burdette worked for Chandler Telecom LLC in Georgia as a cell-tower technician.

Chandler had a policy that techs were always to climb down a tower, not use controlled descent, similar to rappelling. Controlled descent was to be used only in emergencies.

One day, when a team’s work was almost complete, the Chandler supervisor told Burdette to climb down the tower, but Burdette said he wanted to use controlled descent instead.

The supervisor says he told Burdette three or four times not to use controlled descent and instead to climb down. Burdette ignored what the supervisor told him and began controlled descent. Burdette fell a great distance onto the ground below, causing serious injuries to his ankle, leg and hip.

Burdette applied for workers’ comp. Chandler denied his claim on the grounds that, under Georgia law, a worker who disobeys a work order and is injured as a result can’t collect workers’ comp benefits.

Various appeals occurred. We wrote about this case back in December 2015 when the Georgia Court of Appeals concluded Burdette’s actions weren’t “willful misconduct” as defined by state law, therefore he should receive comp benefits. Chandler appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court which recently issued an opinion in the case.

Was it ‘quasi criminal’ in nature?

The Court of Appeals based its decision on language in the Georgia workers’ comp law. The section states willful misconduct had to be of a “quasi criminal nature involving the intentional doing of something either with the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences” to disqualify an injured worker from benefits.

Burdette’s actions weren’t quasi criminal in nature, according to the Court of Appeals.

But the Georgia Supreme Court said the appeals court misinterpreted the language in the state’s comp law. In this case, quasi criminal means intentionally doing something with knowledge that it’s likely to result in serious injury, according to the supreme court. It didn’t literally mean violating a criminal statute.

The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s ruling. The supreme court also found that the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Board didn’t determine whether Burdette intentionally violated his supervisor’s instructions. So the case has to go back to the comp board to ultimately determine if Burdette gets comp benefits.

“In concluding that intentional violations of employer rules may constitute willful misconduct, we do not suggest that all intentional violations of employer rules bar compensation,” the Georgia Supreme Court wrote in this opinion. The message to Georgia employers: Whether an employee safety violation is intentional has to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

(Chandler Telecom LLC v. Burdette, Georgia Supreme Court, No. S16G0595, 2/27/17)

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