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No Lien for the County on Personal Injury Case

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Mr. Slaughter, an EMT for Hamilton County, Tennessee, was injured as the result of a car wreck on April 5, 2010. The injury took place while Mr. Slaughter was working for the County. Hamilton County opted out of the Tennessee workers’ compensation program. Instead, the County operated a self funded on-the-job injury program. As part of the on-the-job injury program, the County paid Mr. Slaughter $7,512.29 in benefits related to his injury. Mr. Slaughter also had a tort claim against the at-fault driver. The County filed a lien on the tort case, seeking to recover the amount of money paid to Mr. Slaughter per the on-the-job injury program.
Mr. Slaughter’s claim was settled for $24,600.00. For whatever reason, Mr. Slaughter’s case went to trial after settlement, and he was awarded $58,000.00 in damages by a jury. Thereafter, the trial court held a hearing on the issue of whether the County could recover from Mr. Slaughter’s settlement. The trial court denied the County’s claim, and the matter was appealed.
The reviewing court upheld the trial court’s decision, holding: (a) there was no statutory or contractual lien; and, (b) Mr. Slaughter was not made-whole by the settlement, and as a result, the County was not entitled to subrogation. (Slaughter v. Mills, (Tenn.Ct.App. 12/19/2019).
A few additional notes: As indicated above, the case was settled before trial, and then proceeded to a jury trial. Typically, settlement make a trial unnecessary. One can only guess that there was an additional defendant involved, who was found by the jury at trial to have not been at-fault. Second, the wreck at issue in this case took place in 2010, and yet the issue of a relatively small subrogation/lien claim was not resolved until 8 years later. For a case that was ultimately worth less than $25,000.00 to not be resolved (assuming no further appeals) for more than eight years is troubling.
Regardless, the Slaughter case is important for personal injury lawyers representing individuals who were injured on the job while working for an governmental entity that may not be subject to the workers’ compensation act, and thus, may not have a right of recovery.

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

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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.

Tennessee Supreme Court Modifies Summary Judgment Standard

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Yesterday, in Michelle Rye v. Women’s Care Center of Memphis, the Tennessee Supreme Court overruled Hannan v. Alltel Publishing Co., issued in 2008, and returned Tennessee to a summary judgment standard consistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  The Court reasoned that the Hannan decision “has functioned in practice to frustrate the purposes for which summary judgment was intended.”  As a practical matter, it remains to be seen what the impact will be of yesterday’s ruling.  The Legislature had already promulgated legislation in 2011 “with the stated purpose ‘to overrule . . . Hannan.'”   The Rye decision could very well be a simple judicial affirmation of the legislation passed in 2011, and if so, the decision does not necessarily change the law.  That being said, the Rye decision is a clear signal to the trial courts that Hannan is no longer the law.

To read a complete copy of the decision, please click here.

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