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Court Explains Meaning of “Willful Misconduct” in Workers’ Compensation Cases

On Behalf of | Sep 26, 2017 | Georgia Workers' Compensation, Workers' Compensation Case Law |

In many Georgia workers’ compensation cases, there is a question of whether the employee’s own actions played a role in causing the injury. In a recent case, Georgia’s Supreme Court explained the meaning of “willful misconduct,” which can bar compensation in some cases.

In that case, an employee was attempting a controlled descent from a cell phone tower and was seriously injured when he fell to the ground. The employer had instructed technicians not to attempt a controlled descent from cell phone towers but instead to climb down from towers. The administrative law judge found that the employee was barred from receiving workers’ compensation benefits because he engaged in “willful misconduct.” The employee appealed, and a Georgia court of appeals reversed the decision, finding the employee’s actions did not constitute “willful misconduct.”

However, Georgia’s Supreme Court reversed, determining that the court of appeals improperly made its own findings. The Court explained that a mere violation of instructions or engaging in an obviously hazardous act does not mean it was willful misconduct. Yet an intentional violation of rules can constitute willful misconduct if it involves knowingly engaging in a hazardous act in which the danger is obvious. In these cases, the fact finder must determine whether the intentional act was done with knowledge that it was likely to result in a serious injury or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its likely consequences. In this case, the Workers’ Compensation Board failed to make findings, and the court of appeals improperly made its own findings. Therefore, the case was sent back to the Board for further proceedings.


Willful Misconduct in Workers’ Compensation Cases

Not every workplace injury results in the payment of workers’ compensation benefits. Under O.C.G.A. 34-9-17(a), an employee cannot be compensated for an injury or death “due to the employee’s willful misconduct, including intentionally self-inflicted injury, or growing out of his or her attempt to injure another, or the willful failure or refusal to use a safety appliance or perform a duty required by state.” Determining what constitutes willful misconduct is left up to the courts to decide.

In a previous case, Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Carroll, Georgia’s Supreme Court stated that “willful misconduct” was “more than mere negligence” and “more than the mere disregard of a duty established by, among other things, a statute or an employer’s rule.” In that case, the court explained that willful misconduct involves “the intentional doing of something, either with the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard or its probable consequences.” This includes “all conscious or intentional violations of definite law or rules of conduct.” In order to fit within this definition, the rule that the employee is alleged to have violated must be definite, and compliance must not be discretionary. Similarly, unconscious actions that violate a rule of conduct will not be determined to be “willful.”

Anyone who is considering filing for workers’ compensation benefits should seek the counsel of a dedicated Georgia workers’ compensation attorney for assistance in preparing their claim.

Contact a Georgia Workers’ Compensation Attorney

If you have been injured and believe you may be entitled to Georgia workers’ compensation benefits, contact a knowledgeable workers’ compensation attorney as soon as possible. Even if you have already received an unfavorable workers’ compensation decision, you may be able to appeal that decision. At the Georgia law office of J. Franklin Burns, P.C., our attorneys have decades of experience handling Georgia workers’ compensation claims. We offer quality legal representation and responsive client service. To obtain a free consultation, contact us at 404-920-4708 or fill out our online form.