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Injured at work, then he got into a fight and was fired: Can he collect comp?

This employee received workers’ comp benefits for workplace injuries. Then he got into a physical fight with a co-worker and was fired. Did his comp benefits continue? 

Dennis Griffin worked for Sun-up Ventures LLC in Montana. On July 7, 2014, Griffin was using a table saw and severely cut fingers on his left hand. He was treated and returned to work the next day on modified duty. Griffin received workers’ comp benefits for his medical expenses.

On Aug. 1, 2014, Griffin was involved in a fight with a co-worker, Nick Hunter, in the shop. Hunter was installing underlayment on a roof they were building when Griffin asked him, “What the hell is this s**t?” The two workers started arguing.

Hunter walked out of the shop, but Griffin followed him and continued to antagonize him. Hunter told Griffin, “I am walking away so I don’t thump you.”

Griffin poked Hunter in the chest and told him he didn’t “have to put up with this s**t.” Hunter grabbed Griffin, and they pushed and shoved each other. Hunter pushed Griffin down on a table and pinned him. A truck driver who was in the shop separated the two workers. Hunter backed away, but Griffin took a swing at Hunter, landing a glancing blow around Hunter’s eyes. Hunter pushed Griffin into a poll, and the truck driver separated them again.

Sun-up found Griffin instigated the fight and fired him. Sun-up’s employee handbook said:

“Violence in the Sun Mountain Lumber workplace is not tolerated and is ground for corrective action up to and including termination.”

Griffin denied he started the fight.

A surgeon performed surgery on Griffin’s previously injured left hand on April 16, 2015. Griffin applied for total temporary disability (TTD) benefits, but the workers’ comp insurer denied him additional benefits because he was fired from his job for disciplinary reasons. Griffin took his case to the Montana Workers’ Compensation Court.

The court found Griffin’s claim that he didn’t start the fight lacked credibility. Testimony before the court included situations in which Griffin couldn’t get along with his co-workers at Sun-up.

Montana’s workers’ comp law says benefits can be denied to an injured worker who is terminated from employment for disciplinary reasons.

The court found Sun-up fired Griffin because he instigated a fight with Hunter which violated the company’s policies as written in its employee handbook. Therefore, the court agreed with the insurer that Griffin shouldn’t receive TTD benefits for his hand injury.

Note: Sun-up’s employee handbook mentioned progressive discipline for other workplace infractions, but it specifically said that violence was an exception – that it could be grounds for immediate firing.

(Dennis M. Griffin v. Associated Loggers ExchangeWorkers’ Compensation Court of Montana, No. 2018 MTWCC 11, 7/27/18)

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