Virginia Worker’s “Short-Cut” Results in Denial of Benefits

Violation of Known Safety Rule Prevents Recovery for Injuries

A decision to enter a fenced area at the employer’s facility through an unapproved opening, instead of through the approved interlock gate that would have deactivated machinery inside the fence, proved costly for a team leader at a commercial laundry, held a Virginia appellate court. The Court affirmed a finding by the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission that the employee’s action constituted a violation of a known safety rule, that the violation was the proximate cause of his subsequent serious injury to a leg, and that the worker, therefore, could not recover workers’ compensation benefits [Jones v. Crothall Laundry, 2019 Va. App. LEXIS 35 (Feb. 12, 2019)].

Background

At an evidentiary hearing, the employee acknowledged that the area in which he received his injury was surrounded by a chain link fence. He acknowledged that employees were supposed to enter the area through the interlock gate in the fence. According to the claimant, the gate was designed to deactivate the machinery in the interior area when opened. The claimant affirmed that he knew that this particular safety rule existed and was enforced. Nevertheless, on the day of his injury, the claimant bypassed the gate and entered the area with the machinery through a separate opening in the fence without deactivating the equipment. The entire sequence of events was recorded on a video that was entered into evidence.

Two managers also testified. One indicated that an employee who entered the fenced area without opening the gate to de-energize the equipment first would be terminated. He added that three months earlier, he had given a verbal warning to other workers whom he overheard discussing the possibility of entering the fenced area without opening the gate. Further, he testified that he was not aware that any employees entered the fenced area without using the gate. Another manager confirmed that the company enforced the safety rule that employees must enter the fenced area only through the interlock gate.

Violation of Safety Rule

The Court stressed that in Virginia, in order to prevail on the defense of a willful breach of a safety rule, the employer must prove:

  1. That the rule was reasonable,
  2. That it was known to the employee,
  3. That it was for the employee’s benefit,
  4. That the employee intentionally undertook the forbidden act, and
  5. That the breach of the rule proximately caused the injury.

The Court noted that upon appeal, the claimant challenged only the Commission’s conclusions that his breach of the safety rule was the proximate cause of his injury and that the employer enforced the rule at issue. It said credible evidence supported the Commission’s factual finding that the claimant’s violation of the relevant safety rule caused his injury.

Mixed Question of Law and Fact

It added that whether the evidence was sufficient to establish that the employer enforced the known safety rule was a mixed question of law and fact. Here the claimant himself acknowledged the rule. Two managers testified as to its enforcement. The Commission acted within its purview as the finder of fact in accepting the claimant’s statement and the two managers’ testimony that the safety rule was enforced.

Since credible evidence supported the Commission’s finding that the claimant’s violation of a known safety rule proximately caused his injury and that the employer enforced the safety rule at issue in the case, the Commission did not err in denying the claimant benefits for his injury due to his willful breach of the known safety rule.

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