On April 3rd, 2014, in Lonnie Smith vs. Tippah Electric Power Ass’n, NO. 2012-CT-00502-SCT, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed several lower court rulings that employee Lonnie Smith had intentionally injured himself in an attempt to commit suicide rather than go to prison for murder…and in so doing, the Court awarded Lonnie workers’ compensation benefits for his “accidental injury”. Some might say that this ruling is a stunning upset of an appropriate denial of Smith’s workers’ compensation claim…but is it? Should this result have been anticipated? Was any effort made to settle the case, and if so, did such an effort realistically consider the exposures in light of traditional workers’ compensation doctrine?
Last Thursday, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that a man serving a 12-year prison sentence for manslaughter will receive workers compensation benefits for injuries suffered when he was shocked by a power line at his former job, even though the employer argued that he intentionally hurt himself. Here are the salient facts:
Lonnie Smith, a lineman employed by Tippah Electric Power Association, a Mississippi-based utility company, was shocked by a power line in 2010 while he and his crew were installing electrical service for a residential trailer. Court records indicate that the claimant’s duties included disconnecting a clamp on a primary, or “hot,” electrical line, and while other crew members were performing other tasks or not paying attention, Lonnie suffered a massive shock when his hands touched two power lines. Both of Lonnie’s hands were amputated below the elbows as a result of his accident, and filed for workers comp benefits.
His employer claimed that Mr. Smith intentionally hurt himself on the job site, contending that the claimant was facing a murder investigation, had been acting “depressed (and) panicked” the day of his accident, and that he was likely trying to commit suicide by electrocuting himself. Of course, Lonnie denied this and testified in court that he did not remember how he came into contact with the power lines, but said he had dropped an unspecified object inside of his bucket platform prior to the accident. Important to the record, but hardly critical, are records indicating that in November 2011, after his occupational injury, Mr. Smith was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In May 2010, a Mississippi administrative judge, on behalf of the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission, ruled that Smith had intentionally injured himself and was not entitled to compensation. In May 2013, the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling. In its 6-3 decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed all earlier rulings, stating that the employer, Tippah, had failed to provide “substantial evidence” that Mr. Smith intentionally injured himself.
Dissenters of the opinion said that there was sufficient evidence to show that the claimant intended to harm himself, including testimony that that Mr. Smith was seen grabbing two power lines and wearing leather gloves, rather than rubber gloves, at the time of this accident — two safety errors that the dissenting justices said Mr. Smith knew better than to commit.
This brings to mind a contemporary folk song written by Pete Seeger in 1955 entitled, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”…and a particular line of lyric in that song, “When will they ever learn?” The question I ask is this: When will we as an industry learn how hard it is to prove a man’s intent? It was the claimant’s “intent” on which the employer was basing its entire defense.
Proving someone’s “intent” is one of the hardest “facts” you could ever try to prove, and the burden is on the party trying to prove it, i.e. in this case, the employer. Assumption and speculation just won’t do…especially in a work comp case. It is no wonder that the claimant’s counsel took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. In my mind, if these truly were all the facts in evidence, then there never was a question of how this would end up.
I wonder if the parties ever even considered settlement…or if the employer/carrier ever made an offer to the claimant that was worth considering…
To ready the full text of the decision, click here: Lonnie Smith v. Tippah Electric Power Ass’n
James W. Greer, CPCU