Virginia Bus Driver’s Failure to Wear Seat Belt Constituted Willful Misconduct

A bus driver, who sustained serious injuries in an accident in which his bus was struck from behind, causing it to careen against a guard rail and then flip over, ejecting the driver, was appropriately found to have violated his employer’s safety policy requiring seatbelt use at all times and, therefore, disqualified from receiving workers’ compensation benefits under Va. Code § 65.2-306 [Mailloux v. American Transp., 2018 Va. App. LEXIS 260 (Oct. 9, 2018)].

Elements of the Willful Misconduct Defense

The Court noted that in order to prevail on a willful misconduct defense, the employer must prove that the rule was reasonable, that it was known to the employee, for the employee’s benefit, that the employee intentionally performed the forbidden act, and that the misconduct proximately caused the employee’s injury.

Was Failure Willful, or Did Driver Just Forget?

According to the evidence, when the driver picked up his passengers around 1:45 a.m. he exited the bus to help the passengers board. After he got back into the driver’s seat, he did not buckle his seatbelt. Approximately an hour later, while he was driving on an interstate highway, another vehicle struck the bus from behind. Claimant attempted to maintain control of the bus without success. The bus traveled approximately 100 feet, riding the right guardrail and then flipped over the guardrail. At that time, the driver was thrown onto the passenger seat and then ejected from the bus. He landed underneath the vehicle’s engine and sustained serious injuries.

The employer, pointing to a publicized rule requiring all drivers to wear seatbelts while on company business, contended that the driver had engaged in willful misconduct under Va. Code § 65.2-306, that claimant engaged in willful misconduct. The deputy commission disagreed and awarded benefits, but the Commission reversed.

Proximate Cause Issue

On further appeal, the driver challenged only the proximate causation element of the employer’s willful misconduct defense. Noting that the issue was one of fact, the Court further indicated that the driver acknowledged that the purpose of a seatbelt was to secure a vehicle’s occupant and that he was ejected because he was not wearing the seatbelt. He further admitted that he did not sustain any injury while in the driver’s seat. The Court said that, based on these facts, the Commission could reasonably infer that all of the driver’s injuries resulted from being thrown out of the driver’s seat, a consequence of his failure to wear a seatbelt.

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