“Quasi-Criminal” Standard Relaxed for Workers’ Compensation Claims
Since 2015, the general rule regarding workers’ compensation benefits following an injury caused by an employee’s intentional violation of a work rule or directive, was that a Claimant who fails to follow directions, fails to use proper safety equipment, or even willfully disobeys the orders of his supervisor will not be absolutely barred from the award of benefits absent at least “quasi-criminal conduct.” The Supreme Court of Georgia recently held that an intentional act will bar workers’ compensation benefits when done either with the knowledge that the act is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its probable injurious consequences.
The Georgia Supreme Court reviewed a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision involving a cell-tower technician who was told to climb down a cell phone tower by his direct supervisor three or four times. Instead, the claimant decided to employ a “controlled descent,” a maneuver he did not have the correct safety equipment to successfully employ. He ended up falling a substantial distance and injuring his ankle, leg, and hip. The general rule is that mere violations of instructions, orders, rules, ordinances, and statutes, and the doing of hazardous acts where the danger is obvious, do not, without more, as a matter of law, constitute willful misconduct by an employee which would preclude an award of workers' compensation benefits. O.C.G.A. § 34–9–17(a). The court of appeals had held that an award of workers’ compensation benefits would not be barred, finding that Claimant’s conduct was at most a violation of instructions and/or doing of hazardous act in which danger was obvious, but was not conduct that was criminal or quasi-criminal in nature, in that employee and other technicians had successfully used controlled descents in the past to descend cell towers. Burdette v. Chandler Telecom, LLC, 779 S.E.2d 75 (Ga. Ct. App. 2015). The Supreme Court held that the court of appeals erred in its interpretation of the term, “willful misconduct,” and reversed. Chandler Telecom, LLC v. Burdette, 300 Ga. 626, 797 S.E.2d 93 (2017).
The Court noted, willful misconduct is much more than mere negligence or gross negligence. It involves conduct of a quasi-criminal nature, 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. Therefore, the requisite mental state that an employee must have for his or her actions to constitute willful misconduct is knowledge that the action will likely result in serious injury, or a wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences. Aetna Life Insurance Co. v. Carroll, 169 Ga. 333, 150 S.E. 208 (1929). A violation that would be considered “criminal or quasi-criminal” is not limited to only violations of penal statutes or similar regulations. The Georgia Supreme Court explained, the Carroll court explicitly stated that “criminal or quasi-criminal” simply meant “the intentional doing of something either with the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with the wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences.”
Therefore, an intentional act is not required to violate a statute or mandate to be classified as “quasi criminal.” The Georgia Supreme Court held that the finder of fact must determine whether such an intentional act was done either with the knowledge that it was likely to result in serious injury, or with the wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences so as to bar workers’ compensation benefits.
Previously, a work injury involving violation of a rule or directives required something extraordinary to not be classified as a work injury. Under the new standard set forth by the Supreme Court, a work injury no longer requires extraordinary circumstances to bar compensation. An Employer/Insurer must only show that the employee knew the consequences of their actions or recklessly disregarded the probable consequences. The most important steps after an injury you suspect was a result of inappropriate conduct are the same for any workplace accident-get the employee to an emergency room and/or a panel provider. Maintaining the rightful provision of medical care is the most important tool an Employer/Insurer has when handling a compensable claim. Investigating the circumstances leading to an injury is critical as well. Consult counsel to see if the misconduct rises to a level which implicates compensability.