I love to teach the doctrines of workers’ compensation disability, especially those involving “traveling employees”, “deviation from employment”, and “the intoxication defense”. The factual situations that can arise are a pure joy to present and they never fail to get total class participation. It’s even more fun to watch reality as it proves that truth is indeed stranger than fiction…
Take, for example, the very recent case of Ronald Knight vs. the State of Washington, Department of Labor and Industries, where, on Monday, April 7th, the Court of Appeals for the State of Washington denied workers’ compensation benefits to a catastrophe adjuster who suffered a head injury on a South Texas beach while working Hurricane Ike. Here are the salient facts:
Rudolph Knight was a 23-year veteran catastrophe adjuster for State Farm, based in Seattle, Washington. In the fall of 2008 he was assigned work on assignment in Galveston, Texas after the area was hit by Hurricane Ike. On one of his days off, he drove to Galveston Island to, in his words, “survey the damage”, when he observed several men riding dune buggies on the beach and in the surf. He stopped to watch. That was the last thing he remembered until he awoke 24 hours later in a Texas hospital…
Records reflect that although he couldn’t recall what happened, when paramedics found him, he was very intoxicated and in a state of hypothermia. Knight told paramedics that he “had a lot of alcohol to drink”, and police and doctors noted that he smelled of alcohol when he was found. Neither he, the police, nor anyone else were ever able to determine how Knight had been injured. The only evidence offered to suggest what may have happened was given by his wife, who stated that she had been speaking with him by phone while he was watching the dune buggy riders, and she heard the men approach him. It was a few hours later when paramedics responded to a 911 call and found Mr. Knight lying in the surf while mumbling “help me.”
Compensable or not? He was, to be sure, a “traveling employee”. In a catastrophe adjusting situation, taking a break on the beach can definitely be considered as covered by the “personal comforts doctrine”. And it’s no crime for traveling employee’s to have a few drinks to unwind while on a mission for the employer. But how far is too far? It’s hard to define…but in the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when asked to define “obscenity”, “I know it when I see it.” Would this case meet his test?
The Appellant’s (i.e. claimant’s) appeal brief and the Court of Appeals’ decision is below. Perhaps this is one time when the claimant satisfied his initial burden (“Hey, I was down here working and got hurt!”), shifted the burden of proving that the injury was NOT occupational to the employer, and then based on verifiable evidence, the burden of proving the injury WAS occupational, was shifted back to the claimant. You decide if justice was done.
For the full text of the Appellate Court’s decision, click here: Rudolph Knight vs. State of Washington, et al.
To see how Mr. Knight’s attorney spun his client’s tale of woe, and it was a worthy one to be sure, take a look at “Appellant’s Brief” filed in the appeal of the trial court’s verdict. It’s really good: Rudolph Knight v. State of Washington, et al. (Appellant’s Brief)
James W. Greer, CPCU