Only Misconduct of a Quasi Criminal Nature will Bar Georgia Employees from Recovering Workers Compensation Benefits

Burdette was a cell tower technician.  It was his first day back at work, and he was assigned to work on the top of a cell tower with the lead tower hand. Prior to the shift, the supervisor had instructed the crew to climb down the towers and not to use controlled descent, which is similar to rappelling, and sometimes used in the industry. The employer required its employees to be trained such descents.  Burdette and the lead man worked together on the same cell tower all day, and when they were done, the lead man instructed Burdette to climb down the tower, but Burdette responded that he wanted to use controlled descent instead:

“I told him no, man, just climb down. Might as well just climb down … . [W]e don’t have a safety rope up here for you to grab. He told me he had done this so many times. I was like, dude, they’re going to be mad if you do it. [Our supervisor] will be mad if you do it and, … you might not have a job or you might, you know, have to deal with the consequences if you don’t listen.”

However, Burdette prepared his equipment and began a controlled descent, but fell, causing severe injuries to his ankle, leg, and hip.  Should he be barred from receiving workers compensation benefits?

The Georgia Court of Appeals determined he would not be barred, even though he had violated instructions from his lead man and the supervisor.  In Burdette v. Chandler Telecom, LLC, 2015 Ga. App. LEXIS 619 (10/30/15), the Court found that the administrative law judge and the State Board of Workers’ Compensation had erred in finding that the claim was barred because the injury resulted from his own willful misconduct, and they reversed the Board’s decision.

“Our Supreme Court has . . . explained that willful misconduct “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.” Indeed, 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.””

This is an important decision, given the trend in some states, including Tennessee, to find that mere violation of work safety instructions constitutes willful misconduct sufficient to relieve the employer of responsibility for the resulting medical bills and disability benefits. In Burdette the Court of Appeals followed Georgia precedent and reached the correct decision.  Burdette was not drunk or high on drugs, and he did not deliberately try to injure himself.  Allowing an employer to escape responsibility for workers compensation benefits in such a circumstance has repercussions far beyond the immediate parties involved. For instance, if the workers compensation insurer was not required to pay in such circumstances, the hospital would not get paid for the treatment it provided and the burden would ultimately fall on the public.

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