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Ignoring seat belt bars comp benefits for wreck injuries

seat-belt_mainAn employee who chose not to use a seat belt in the company truck he was driving cannot recover workers’ compensation benefits for injuries suffered in a wreck, the Virginia Court of Appeals has ruled.

The appeals court pointed to the conclusion of the Workers’ Compensation Commission that the claimant’s injuries were caused by his failure to wear the seat belt and his resulting ejection from the truck in an accident.

The court agreed with the commission on March 10 that the employee engaged in “willful misconduct” by failing to wear the seat belt, barring an award of benefits.

The court’s unpublished, 10-page opinion is Mizelle v. Holiday Ice Inc. (VLW 020-7-043).

Ice delivery

Parker Mizelle worked for a Suffolk ice company. His duties included delivering trailers of ice to customers. On Sept. 6, 2018, he was asked to take a “party trailer” of ice to Smithfield.

There was conflicting evidence about the urgency of his mission. Mizelle said he was told the delivery needed to be done quickly – “kind of like in a hurry.” But he also said that tightly scheduled deliveries were the norm.

Mizelle drove a truck equipped with a seat belt. He said he knew the law required seat belt use, but he did not put the seat belt on.

Driving on a four-lane highway, Mizelle testified he felt a bump and saw his trailer on the left side of his vehicle. He tried to realign the rig, but the truck veered across the median into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with a dump truck.

Mizelle was ejected from the truck. He wasn’t sure whether his body struck anything within the truck cab before he was ejected, but he suffered grievous injuries. He had kidney, liver and spleen lacerations, a broken left scapula and rib and a pulmonary contusion. He sought medical benefits and temporary total disability benefits.

A doctor’s answers on a questionnaire weakened Mizelle’s case for benefits. The doctor said Mizelle’s injuries were “consistent with being caused by an ejection and impact with the ground” and that “it is more likely than not that use of a seatbelt would have limited or avoided [the] injuries.”

Commission denial

A Workers’ Compensation Commission deputy commissioner concluded the employer had not proved willful misconduct, but the full commission disagreed. The commission rejected Mizelle’s argument that he lacked “wrongful intent” or a “wrongful state of mind.”

The commission also concluded from the medical evidence and Mizelle’s own description that his injuries were proximately caused by his failure to wear the seat belt.

On appeal, Mizelle’s attorney, Carlton F. Bennett of Virginia Beach, said the need for a prompt delivery constituted “exigent circumstances” that excused the failure to use the seat belt.

“They said this ice needs to go. It needs to be done quickly. So, it was in a hurry. That’s the issue here,” Bennett told the Court of Appeals panel. “In our case, we’ve got the exigent circumstances of being rushed by the employer to get the melting ice over to the destination,” Bennett continued.

Bennett again contended the record did not show Mizelle had any “wrongful intention” in neglecting the seat belt.

For the employer and the insurer, Amanda T. Belliveau of Richmond argued the appeals court was bound by the factual findings of the commission.

Misconduct

The Court of Appeals found sufficient evidence of willful misconduct.

Under Virginia law, it is unnecessary to show that the employee, having the rule in mind, determined to break it, wrote Judge Mary B. Malveaux for the panel. It is enough to show that, knowing the rule, he intentionally performed the forbidden act.

“Claimant’s conduct clearly demonstrated his rejection of what the statute demanded and his willful choice not to comply with the statute,” Malveaux wrote.

The Court of Appeals’ analysis did not address the alleged “exigent circumstances” of the need for prompt delivery.

Proximate cause

The court also concluded the record supported the finding of proximate cause.

The judges said it was uncontested that Mizelle was not wearing the seat belt and that, when he struck the dump truck, he was ejected from his vehicle and landed on the pavement. They pointed to the opinion of the trauma physician that the injuries were consistent with ejection and an impact with the ground. The doctor went on to say it was more likely than not that a seat belt would have limited or prevented the injuries, the court noted.

“The Commission found that claimant’s injuries were proximately caused by his failure to wear his seat belt and his resulting ejection from his truck, and the uncontested and uncontroverted evidence noted above supports that finding,” Malveaux wrote.

Belliveau – the employer’s attorney – said there were two prior Virginia cases on seat belt use in the context of workers’ compensation claims. The court’s opinion mentions neither of them. But the Mizelle opinion may stand as a guidepost for future seat belt issues.

“I think the Mizelle opinion addresses the legal issues with more specificity,” Belliveau said.

Bennett declined to comment on the ruling.