Supreme Court Denies Workers’ Compensation Benefits to Employee for Willful Behavior

May 8, 2012

Nashville, Tenn. In a 4-1 opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court today denied workers’ compensation benefits to a lineman for Fayetteville Public Utilities who was injured on the job. 

On Jan. 5, 2009, Troy Mitchell and his crew were replacing a power pole. Mitchell, who admittedly was aware of a safety rule requiring the use of protective gloves while working in a bucket lift, nevertheless removed his gloves in order to more easily hammer a metal staple. The proof indicated that a copper wire that Mitchell was handling came into contact with a line transformer some five feet below. In consequence, he received an electrical shock of approximately 7,200 volts, causing significant burns to both hands and his side. Had he worn the gloves, no injuries would have occurred. Just over a year after the accident, Mitchell was able to return to work in the same position he held at the time of the accident. 

While conceding that the injury was employment related, Fayetteville Public Utilities denied workers’ compensation benefits because Mitchell had willfully violated the well-established rule of safety requiring gloves at all times in the lift.  Mitchell filed suit, and the trial court awarded benefits, finding that the employee had a reasonable excuse for violating the rule.  Basing its holding on prior case law and an authoritative legal treatise on the subject, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision, ruling that the evidence at trial established that Mitchell willfully, rather than negligently or recklessly, violated the safety rule, and therefore, he could not recover benefits. The Court made particular note of the fact that Mitchell had candidly acknowledged the potential dangers of working near live wires without gloves.

Justice Janice Holder dissented. She disagreed with the majority’s definition of willfulness, concluding that the Supreme Court’s prior case law defined willful misconduct as something more than recklessness, negligence or a mere lapse in judgment. The dissent concludes that the evidence does not preponderate against the trial court's award of benefits based on its finding that Mitchell thought he was in a safe area when he removed his gloves. The dissent also expresses concern that the majority’s construction of the element of willfulness will permit findings of intentional wrongdoing in cases involving only employee negligence or recklessness. 

To read the Troy Mitchell v. Fayetteville Public Utilities opinion authored by Justice Gary R. Wade visit http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/mitchellopn.pdf

To read the dissent authored by Justice Janice M. Holder, visit http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/mitchell_dis.pdf.