Safety and OSHA News

Court: Give him workers’ comp … while he’s in prison

A former electric company lineman with 16 years experience will receive workers’ comp benefits after suffering a severe electrical shock and losing both of his hands. He’s also serving time in prison for manslaughter, which figured into the procedural history of his comp case. 

Lonnie Smith worked as a lineman for Tippah Electric Power Association in Mississippi.

On April 29, 2010, Smith was part of a crew installing electrical service. On that day, Smith was the bucket man and had disconnected the clamp on the primary or hot electrical line.

He was waiting for a signal from below so he could continue his work, when a company engineer drove to the job site. The engineer had been sent to bring Smith in for a drug test.

The engineer says a few seconds after he told Smith to come down, he heard the bucket moving followed by a buzzing sound. When he turned back around, he saw Smith lying in the power lines with one hand on the neutral line and one on the primary. Neither the engineer nor the other crew members saw how this happened.

Smith had been wearing leather gloves that were burned on the palms. Workers were required to wear rubber gloves if they were going to be within two feet and one inch of the primary line.

The lineman survived, but he suffered amputations on both arms below the elbows.

Tippah’s vice president of safety and loss control investigated. The company decided not to grant Smith workers’ comp, theorizing the lineman intentionally injured himself.

At the time, Smith was under investigation for a murder committed ten days earlier. Tippah suggested when the engineer came to bring Smith in for a drug test, he panicked and grabbed the neutral and primary lines in a suicide attempt.

Smith denied that was the case and filed a petition with the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission to receive benefits.

An administrative law judge (ALJ) found Smith had intentionally injured himself, therefore his injuries didn’t qualify for workers’ comp benefits.

The Workers’ Compensation Commission and an appeals court affirmed the ALJ’s decision.

Smith took his case to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Not enough evidence

A 6-3 majority on the state’s highest court decided the commission’s decision wasn’t supported by substantial evidence.

The court noted no one actually witnessed what happened to Smith.

Given that, the supreme court said the ALJ made an assumption that Smith was depressed or suicidal.

For that reason, the court reversed the previous decisions and sent the case back to the commission to determine Smith’s benefits.

Smith will receive the benefits while in prison. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a homicide case and is serving a 12-year prison sentence.

The three justices who dissented thought there was enough evidence from which it could be “reasonably inferred” that Smith intentionally grabbed the two lines in a suicide attempt.

Several witnesses testified they saw Smith with one hand on the neutral line and one hand on the primary line immediately after the incident. The palms of Smith’s gloves were burned, indicating he was holding both lines. The three dissenting justices wrote they thought it was unlikely Smith would be accidentally in contact with both lines simultaneously.

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

(Lonnie Smith v. Tippah Electric Power Association, Supreme Court of MS, No. 2012-CT-00502-SCT, 4/3/14)

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  1. I think this is outrageous, that’s what I think.

  2. catch22 says:

    Did they proceed with the drug test? It does not mention? Of course with those types of injuries, he most likely would have been given narcotics in the ER so it may not have been a valid test.
    The employee with 16 years of experience would normally be expected to know and be following all required procedures. I have not seen many utilitiy companies that are not sticklers about following safety rules. Since the employee was not wearing the proper gloves, it would appear there were othe issues.
    I guess my other problem with this one is why someone should be able to draw WC when in Prison? Should be a process to at least delay any payments until he is out.

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