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Don’t Expect Workers’ Comp. Benefits if you Violate a Work Order

  • Dave Brown, Esquire
  • 12/14/2020

If you hurt yourself at work and cannot do your job as a result of your injuries, normally you are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits under Pennsylvania law – money for your lost wages and payment of your medical bills. There are a few exceptions to this general rule, though, one of which is if the injury was caused by the violation of a work order or rule.
The law requires an employer trying to avoid paying workers’ comp. benefits based on this exception to prove the following:

1.) The injury was, in fact, caused by the violation of the order or rule.
2.) The employee actually knew of the order or rule.
3.) The order or rule implicated an activity that was not connected with the employee’s work duties.

When this issue comes up in a case, the employer typically presents the testimony of one or more supervisors to describe the work rule, why the employee was aware of it, and how the violation of the rule caused the injury. The injured worker will also testify and explain either that he did not violate a rule, did not know about the rule, or the action he was doing when he injured himself was essential to doing his job and therefore connected with his work duties. The Workers’ Compensation Judge then must decide if the employer has proven the three elements above, and if so, the injured worker will not be entitled to workers’ comp. benefits.

This area of the law is shaped by decisions by Workers’ Compensation Judges that are appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and then the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. We will summarize a few cases that went up to the Commonwealth Court. In some, the Court found the injured worker was entitled to benefits; in some, the injured worker was denied benefits.

In one case, an employee was trained as a pallet jack driver. He was not certified to operate a forklift. Occasionally, he enjoyed “joyriding” on the forklift. One time, while doing that, he crashed into a pole, sustaining injuries. The Judge denied him benefits because clearly there was a rule against an employee driving a forklift that was not certified, he knew about the rule, and his “joyriding” was completely unrelated to the performance of his job duties; he was doing it for fun.

In another case, a man was a laborer, part of a work crew waiting for an asphalt delivery. There happened to be a bowling ball nearby, and the laborer tried to spruce things up by trying to break the ball with a sledgehammer. He was unsuccessful on his first attempt, although the ball cracked, and the supervisor of the crew told him to “knock it off.” The employee tried it again and a piece of the ball flew back and struck him in the eye, causing the loss of sight in that eye. The Judge, perhaps sympathetic because the man had lost an eye, granted him benefits, finding that he was careless, but this was not a full-fledged violation of a work order. Also, the Judge noted, the supervisor had issued his warning (“knock it off”) only moments before the injury occurred. However, the Appeal Board reversed the Judge and found that, despite the seriousness of the injury, the laborer was not entitled to workers’ comp. benefits. The Commonwealth Court agreed with the Appeal Board because the supervisor’s warning to the laborer was sufficient even though it was issued right before the injury happened, and the smashing of the bowling ball had nothing to do with the laborer’s job.

However, there have been cases in which the Commonwealth Court has rejected an employer’s argument that an injured worker should be denied benefits based on a rule violation. A press operator was trying to remove a piece of metal that became stuck in a machine he was using. He was aware that there were maintenance workers available to perform repairs on the machines. Nevertheless, the man, eager to fix the machine quickly, reached up underneath the machine to unjam it and part of one of his fingers was badly injured. The Judge denied the press operator benefits on the basis that he failed to follow the safety rules in attempting to fix the jam. The Appeal Board agreed with the Judge. However, the Commonwealth Court disagreed with the Judge and the Appeal Board and awarded the press operator benefits. The Court reasoned that while technically the injured worker violated a work rule, of which he was aware, his act of trying to fix the jam in the machine was in fact connected to his work duties, as he was trying to repair the machine so he could continue to do his job.

Another case involved a tree trimmer who went through safety training with his employer and understood the “ground-to-sky” policy which required that an employee not climb off a ladder before putting his climbing rope, or safety line, into the tree first, and then tying himself in. The tree trimmer went up a ladder to prune several limbs on a tree. When he was halfway up the ladder, the supervisor left the work area to get a pole from the truck. When the trimmer reached the top of the ladder, he put his first lanyard around the tree, and tied his second lanyard around a limb. Unfortunately, the tree limb snapped, and the tree trimmer fell from the tree, breaking his arm. In finding that the tree trimmer was entitled to benefits, the Commonwealth Court used the same reasoning as it did in the case with the press operator: Even though the employee violated a safety rule which he had knowledge of, his violation was connected to his job duties and therefore it would be unfair to deny him workers’ comp. benefits.

Make no mistake about it, employers and their insurance companies go to great lengths in attempting to deny injured workers the benefits they deserve for a variety of reasons; claiming that the employee violated a work order or rule is in their bag of tricks. If your workers’ comp. claim has been denied on this basis, please contact Pearson Koutcher Law. Our firm is comprised exclusively of experienced, knowledgeable lawyers who practice workers’ comp. law and nothing else. We will listen to your story and take the necessary legal action on your behalf to protect your rights. In fact, even if you hurt yourself at work, and the violation of a work order is not an issue in your case, nevertheless it is in your best interest to have a top-notch workers’ comp. lawyer on your side. Please call Pearson Koutcher Law for a free, comprehensive consultation.