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Tennessee High Court adopts new test for workers compensation defense

by Darrell Phillips, Attorney

The Tennessee Supreme Court today filed its opinion in Troy Mitchell v. Fayetteville Public Utilities, No. M2011-00410-SC-R3-WC (Tenn. filed May 8, 2012), adopting  a four-part test for the employer defense of willful misconduct and willful failure or refusal to use a safety appliance in workers’ compensation claims.  A typical example of this defense arises when an employee fails to follow a company procedure and suffers an on-the-job injury as a result.  By arguing that the employee willfully failed to follow a safety procedure,  or suffered the injury because of that employee’s own misconduct, an employer may avoid its obligation to pay worker’s compensation benefits.

The four-part test adopted today requires that an employer prove: 1) the employee’s actual, as opposed to constructive, notice of the employer’s rule or procedure; 2) the employee’s understanding of the danger involved in violating the rule or procedure; 3) the employer’s bona fide enforcement of the rule; and 4) the employee’s lack of a valid excuse for violating the rule.

In Mitchell, a lineman for Fayetteville Public Utilities, had taken off his protective gloves to attach a lightning arrestor, when a copper ground wire he was holding touched a transformer on the pole.  He received a shock of approximately 7,200 volts and suffered serious injury to his hands.  At trial, the employee admitted that he knew about the company policy requiring use of the gloves, understood the rationale, and appreciated the danger in taking them off.  His explanation however, that he was saving time or found it easier to staple the lightning arrestor without the gloves, was not valid or plausible, according to the Tennessee Supreme Court.  The Court stated that, “convenience to the Employee does not qualify as a valid excuse.”   The Court therefore reversed the trial court and denied the employee benefits.

Click here to read the opinion.

For more information contact:
Anthony C. Pietrangelo
PH: 901-685-2662
FX: 901-685-6122