Earlier this month, the Tennessee Supreme Court voted 4-to-1 to deny workers' compensation benefits to a Fayetteville Public Utilities lineman injured on the job and truthful during his recovery.
While at work, Troy Mitchell removed his protective gloves while installing a power pole, grabbed a hammer from the crane bucket in which he was standing and received 7,200 volts of electricity.
The good news is it didn’t kill him. The bad news is both hands were severely burned as well as an entire side of the lineman’s body. Mitchell, after several months of reconstructive hand surgery and other medical treatments, returned to the utility and to the exact same lineman position.
That move didn’t help Mitchell’s case much.
According to Fayetteville Public Utilities' lawyer, Duane Willis of Manier & Herod in Nashville, the fact that Mitchell returned to his job gives credence to the utility’s position that Mitchell knew the danger he faced by violating the utility’s glove policy. And the unfortunate result means he’ll never do it again and stick to regulations from now on, which is the message Fayetteville wants to send to other workers.
“The problem for the defense was that Mitchell substituted his own judgment for that of the company,” Willis said, adding that Mitchell was forthright about his mistake and admitted and communicated his error freely from the start, which from a legal perspective certainly didn’t help his case much.
The unspoken message: If you get hurt on the job, keep your mouth shut. Things will work better for you.
A brief summary of Mitchell’s efforts to receive workers' compensation benefits is as follows: Fayetteville paid most of Mitchell’s hospital and medical expenses, but not all. Mitchell pursued what wasn’t covered through standard workers' compensation application channels but was denied. Mitchell sued and won at trial. Fayetteville's appeal was heard by a panel of three state Supreme Court justices.
Murfreesboro lawyer Sonya Henderson represented Mitchell before the panel and before the court. She could not be reached for comment this week.
After the panel heard oral arguments and before a decision was rendered, Willis said the justices knew this case was unique and required a change in the law to redefine “willfulness” in a way the applicable statutes now on the books could be rightly applied.
“Before, there was a four-prong test defining willfulness, the fourth prong being perverseness, which until this case was impossible to define,” Willis said.
The larger question central to this case was if Mitchell acted willfully or negligently. The Supreme Court decided willfully was the answer but needed to change the law to make that decision stick. Going forward, all that’s needed to meet that fourth prong standard defining willfulness is finding that the employee had a plausible explanation for his actions. If he did, then the test is met and the act in question can be legally defined as willful.
The Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s decision that had awarded benefits to Mitchell and dismissed the case. Mitchell is still working for the utility.
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