The severe injuries to a utility lineman in Tennessee delineate the fine line where "no fault" ends and "willful intent" begins. In January 2009, Troy Mitchell and his crew were replacing a forty-foot power pole with a new pole forty-five feet in height. Mitchell was in a bucket lift near the top of the new pole preparing to attach a lightning arrestor when a copper ground wire that he held in his bare hands came into contact with a transformer on the older, charged pole some five feet below. Mitchell received an electrical shock of approximately 7,200 volts. He suffered severe burns and injuries to both hands. Clearly, Mitchell was in the course and scope of employment, but he had removed the safety gloves that would have prevented the injury. So is this a case of no fault coverage or willful disregard of safety rules? Are Mitchell's injuries compensable?
There is no doubt about the severity of the injuries. Mitchell underwent eight surgeries--five on the left hand and three on the right. Procedures included cleaning the wounds, cutting away dead tissue, and removing healthy skin from Mitchell's forearms and upper arm to suture into the hands. Following these surgeries, he underwent physical and occupational therapy for ten-months in an effort to reduce the swelling in his hands and increase strength and flexibility. He was also treated for burn injuries to his side. Just over one year after the accident, Mitchell was able to return to work in the same position he held at the time of the accident.
Before considering the compensability issues, let's take a moment to applaud Mitchell for his gritty recovery and his fierce determination to get back to work. You could hardly ask for a more motivated worker.
An Initial Determination of Compensability
A trial court found the injuries to be compensable. They awarded Mitchell a vocational disability rating of 39% permanent partial disability to the body as a whole--one and one-half times the 26% medical impairment rating to the body as a whole. The court noted that Mitchell is "apparently a tough guy. He's back at work. He and the doctor worked together to make sure there were no restrictions. This is a profound injury. He has deformity on both of the hands. It's quite visible."
In addition to an award of $117,312.00 for permanent partial disability, the trial court granted $23,462.40 in attorney's fees and $1,669.20 in discretionary costs. (As much as we would like to explore the concept of "permanent partial disability" ratings for people who are able to perform their original jobs, we must set that aside for another day.)
Mitchell's employer appealed the compensability determination. In Tennessee - as in most states - there is a four-pronged test for willful intent. No one questioned that the first three tests had been met: (1) at the time of the injury the employer had in effect a policy requiring the employee's use of a particular safety appliance; (2) the employer carried out strict, continuous and bona fide enforcement of the policy; (3) the employee had actual knowledge of the policy, including a knowledge of the danger involved in its violation, through training provided by the employer.
The crux of the matter arises in the fourth test: (4) the employee willfully and intentionally failed or refused to follow the established policy requiring use of the safety appliance. In other words, the sole issue was whether Mitchell's removal of his gloves while in the performance of his duties was a willful disregard of safety policy.
Mitchell testified that he had worn his protective gloves when lifted in the bucket and when he covered the "hot" lines on the lower pole with rubber blankets and hosing. Having done that, he believed that he was in a "safe zone" and "clear" of the danger five feet below. He then took off his gloves to hammer a metal staple, which was to secure a lightning arrestor into the crossarm of the new, taller pole. Mitchell explained that it was easier to hammer without the gloves and, further, that he "didn't want to puncture a hole" in the gloves. After removing the gloves, he remembered being struck by a "ball of fire." He later realized later that the copper ground wire he was handling at the time must have come into contact with the transformer on the lower pole. He further testified that because he had removed his gloves under similar circumstances on previous occasions, he did not believe that he was exposing himself to danger.
On cross-examination, Mitchell acknowledged that the employer's policy was that "any time from cradle to cradle, which is when the bucket closes, you have to wear your rubber gloves if you're around anything hot․" He admitted that when he was "around" the hot wires, the rule required him to wear his gloves for safety reasons. He further understood that the employer's policy required leather gloves as an additional covering to guard against puncturing the rubber gloves. He agreed that his gloves were in perfect condition and that he should have kept them on as he attached the staple. Mitchell conceded that his failure to do so violated the safety rules. When asked whether he could hammer the staples with the gloves on, he responded, "Yes, but it's hard."
The cost of replacement gloves was not an issue: the company's safety coordinator confirmed the gloves were provided by the employer and were immediately replaced when punctured or worn out. As a result, it appears that Mitchell was just trying to save his employer a few bucks by not ruining the gloves!
The Supreme Court of Tennessee determined that Mitchell had indeed willfully disregarded company safety policy and thus was not eligible for benefits under workers compensation.
A Compelling Dissent
Justice Holder dissented from the majority opinion. She noted that Mitchell believed he was in a "safe zone" and was not in danger of electrocution when he removed his rubber gloves. Holder quotes the trial court: "it is plausible that [Mr. Mitchell] believed the pole he was working on was not hot." Holder goes on to note that although Mitchell's conduct in this case may rise to the level of negligence or recklessness, the removal of his gloves when he assumed he was in a safe zone should not be deemed willful misconduct.
Mitchell, an experienced lineman, made a judgment that he had protected himself from potential harm by covering the lower power lines with insulated blankets. He removed the gloves to more easily complete the installation process. He made a mistake, he was certainly at fault, but the action, in the opinion of Justice Holder, did not rise to the level of willful misconduct.
This case falls within the perpetual gray zone in which most disputes on compensability are argued. While the majority was technically correct in their determination, and while the law does not discriminate between worthy and unworthy employees, it is difficult not to side with Justice Holder in her dissent: Mitchell is in so many respects an exemplary worker. If the rules of comp could be made to bend toward justice, perhaps they would bend in the direction of this stoic and stalwart man. Unfortunately, that's not the way this system works.