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No Workers’ Compensation Awarded to Truck Driver Injured in Motor Vehicle Accident After Failing to Wear Seat Belt

Everyone knows to wear a seat belt. Some cars even have sticker warnings, while other car systems flash warning signals when the car starts, but how many drivers adhere to these warnings? Who is at fault if someone doesn’t wear a seat belt and gets hurt? Is it the employer? Is it the employee?

The Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act (the “Act”) is the governing statute that controls how and if a claimant can recover from a workplace related injury in Virginia. Generally, an employee is covered under the Act if the employer employs three or more employees in the workplace. In order to obtain benefits, an employee must prove that: (1) the injury was caused by an accident; (2) that the injury was sustained in the course of the employment; and (3) that the injury arose out of the employment. To recover in Virginia, the injured employee must file a claim with the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission (“VWCC”) within two (2) years of the injury. The injured employee must also provide written notice to its employer within thirty (30) days of the accident.

The Act is twofold in that it benefits both employers and employees. For example, the Act protects employers from lawsuits by employees who suffer work related injuries during the course of their employment; likewise, a negligent employee who is injured on the job can recover even if he or she was at fault (subject to certain exceptions discussed below).

In past years, workers’ compensation claims have tended to be “claimant friendly” with there only being a limited number of defenses available to employers. An employer who intends to defend against a workers’ compensation claim must present certain defenses to bar his employee from recovery. For instance, an employee will not recover where the employer proves that the employee’s injury or death was due to willful misconduct, intoxication, willful failure to use a safety appliance, willful violation of an employer’s reasonable rule that the employee was aware of, or the use of a non-prescribed controlled drug.

The willful misconduct defense is the most heavily relied upon defense by employers. To successfully raise a willful misconduct defense, the employer must establish that the: (1) safety rule or other duty was reasonable, (2) that the rule was known to the employee, (3) that the rule was for the employee’s benefit, and (4) that the employee intentionally undertook the forbidden act. Additionally, the employer must prove that the misconduct caused the employee’s injury. If an employer proves that his employee willfully violated a safety rule, the employee is barred from compensation under the Act. For instance, if an employee is injured while driving an employer’s vehicle, insurance companies inquire into whether the employee was wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. If an employee is not wearing a seat belt, the employer could raise both a violation of a safety rule and violation of a statute defense. These defenses have been successful and unsuccessful within a set of similar facts and a recent opinion (below) signals a change in the thinking with respect to rule violation and statute violation workers’ compensation cases.

In a recent March 2020 opinion, the Virginia Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether an employee’s failure to wear a seatbelt constituted a willful violation such that prevented recovery under the Act. Mizelle v. Holiday Ice, Inc., No. 1115-19-1, 2020 Va. App. LEXIS 68 (Ct. App. Mar. 10, 2020). In Mizelle, claimant worked as a truck driver delivering ice for his employer. His employer instructed him to deliver a “party trailer” of ice to Smithfield “quickly.” Claimant did not put on his seatbelt. While delivering ice, claimant collided with a dump truck and was thrown from the vehicle. The court held that claimant’s failure to wear a seatbelt was willful because claimant knew and understood that he was supposed to wear a seatbelt when driving and knew the seat belt law applied to him. Additionally, by stating that he intended to put the seatbelt on at some point prior to driving the truck demonstrated that he was violating the seat belt law purposefully, not accidentally, and with deliberate intent. The court found that claimant willfully failed to wear his seat belt and therefore willfully failed to comply with the seat belt law. Claimant was barred from recovering under the Act.

In an earlier decision, the employee, a truck driver, was injured when he was involved in a motor vehicle accident. Blackwell v. Puryear Trucking, VWC No. 188-28-78 (Nov. 6, 1998). The employee was not wearing his seat belt. In this case, the Commission awarded benefits to the employee because the employee testified he “simply forgot” to put his seat belt back on after a brief stop. The Commission found that the claimant inadvertently failed to comply with the rule requiring use of a seat belt and that there was no willful intention not to wear the seat belt. Thus, the claim was not barred by willful misconduct.

In reconciling these cases we see the court focusing on the claimant’s intent. In Mizelle., it’s important to recognize that the employee did not testify that he “forgot” to put on his seat belt, but rather he testified that he “intended” to put on his seat belt at some point during the ride. The employee’s intent was essential to the court’s decision. If the employee would have forgotten to put on the seatbelt like in Blackwell, the case may have been decided differently.

In a 1995 opinion, claimant was injured in a motor vehicle accident while working as a tow truck driver for his employer. Old v. Huckaby, No. 2013-94-1, 1995 Va. App. LEXIS 563, at *1 (Ct. App. July 5, 1995). The employee was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident. The court held that the evidence failed to prove that the employee would not have suffered his injury had he been wearing a seat belt. The court held that employee’s failure to have his seat belt fastened at the time of the accident was, at most, negligence and that no evidence proved that he intentionally failed to fasten his seat belt. Considering the broader impact, it seems like the Mizelle case may stand as a shining light for seat belt cases in the future. If an employer proves that his employee purposefully failed to put on a seat belt, the employer will most likely prevail on a willful misconduct defense and defeat the employee’s workers’ compensation claim.

There are certain steps employers can take to protect themselves against workers’ compensation claims. These steps can help establish that the safety rule was known to the employee and the employee intentionally undertook the act.

  1. Conduct safety trainings on a regular basis and keep track of employee attendance.
  2. Ensure each employee has signed an employee handbook that covers safety rules and requirements to show that the rules were known to employees.
  3. Always provide safety equipment where applicable.
  4. Know your employees. Ensure signs, employee handbooks, and safety instructions are printed in the language that your employees read and speak.
  5. If a safety rule is violated, do not condone the behavior because the employee could rebut the defense by showing that the rule was not kept alive by enforcement or that there was a valid reason for his inability to obey the rule.

If you have questions about this article or about the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act in general, please feel free to contact Cindy S. Foster (cfoster@setlifflaw.com) at 804-377-1275 or Steve Setliff (ssetliff@setlifflaw.com) at 804-377-1261.

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