Yesterday the Georgia Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision reversing the Court of Appeals’ decision in Chandler Telecom LLC v. Burdette, breathing new life into one of the few defenses available to Georgia employers – the “willful misconduct” defense. This is a huge win for employers and insurers because it preserves the “willful misconduct” defense, which was at risk of being judicially eliminated even though it is expressly provided for by statute. Moore Ingram Johnson & Steele authored an Amicus Brief to the Georgia Supreme Court in support of the employer/insurer’s appeal, on behalf of Georgia Workers’ Compensation Association, Associated General Contractors of Georgia, Georgia Manufacturer’s Association, Georgia Mining Association, Georgia Paper & Forest Products Association, and Georgia Poultry Federation.
In the unanimous Supreme Court decision, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision which had reversed the Superior Court, State Board of Workers’ Compensation, and ALJ’s award denying workers’ comp. benefits because the injured employee disregarded his supervisor’s instructions not to use ropes and harnesses to descend from the cell tower. The employee ignored the express instructions by his supervisor not to descend down the stairs and instead, started a controlled descent down over his supervisor’s objection. During the process, the employee fell a great distance to the ground causing serious injuries.
Workers’ Compensation benefits were denied based on the willful misconduct defense, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the employer failed to prove the employee’s intentional violation of an employer rule and a supervisor’s instruction rose to the level of “quasi criminal” conduct and awarded workers’ compensation benefits to the employee. The Supreme Court’s Opinion reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision and remanded the case back to the Workers’ Comp. Board for the Board to make a determination as to whether the employee’s intentional violation of the employer’s instructions was “either with the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences.” The Supreme Court indicated that if the Board makes either of the foregoing findings, the claim should be denied. Although the Supreme Court specifically stated that they are not suggesting all intentional violations of employer rules bar compensation, the Supreme Court does state, “an intentional violation does bar compensation when done either with the knowledge it is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its probable injurious consequences.”
Robert D. Ingram