Workers' Compensation

Missouri: Prankster Denied Workers’ Comp Benefits After Starting Fire at Work

The Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission denied benefits to a claimant who burned himself after he intentionally lit a can of industrial adhesive on fire to startle to a co-worker. The claimant lapsed into a coma as a result of his injuries and woke up in the hospital with no memory of the event. The parties stipulated that the prank involved substantial injuries to the claimant, representing 45% disability of the body, and that the unpaid medical costs were $261,173. The Commission ruled in Hedrick v Big O-Tires, 2016 MO WCLR Lexis 34 (June 22, 2016) (Lexis Advance), 2016 MO WCLR Lexis 34 (June 22, 2016) (lexis.com) that the injury did not flow from a risk that was associated with the claimant’s employment.

The administrative law judge (ALJ) found that the employer tolerated horseplay on its premises, including "silly" behavior such as "greasing door knobs, blowing air at an employee in the bathroom, snapping a rag in an employee's direction and placing inappropriate objects in a co-worker's toolbox." The ALJ ruled, however, that the claimant "failed to demonstrate a causal connection between the duties of his employment at Big O Tires and intentionally lighting a can of glue held in a co-worker's hand on fire with a lighter. Mr. Hedrick himself testified that there was no function of his employment at Big O Tires that involved setting a can of glue on fire."

The Commission’s 2-1 decision affirmed the ALJ’s denial of benefits. The Commission noted that "the risk bears almost no relation to the employment whatsoever. Any employee can choose to mishandle or misuse dangerous materials in such a way as to introduce new risks and hazards into the workplace; but this choice, standing alone, is insufficient to implicate workers' compensation liability for consequent injuries sustained by such an employee." The Commission pointed out, though, that the innocent co-worker who was burned in the event was entitled to benefits because his injuries arose from an unprovoked and neutral assault.

The dissent argued the ALJ’s ruling should have been reversed because the employer allowed "rampant" horseplay, and by condoning such horseplay, the employer exposed the claimant to the hazard of a potentially dangerous injury.

Source: Martin Klug, Huck, Howe & Tobin. Read Martin Klug’s Mo. Workers’ Comp Alerts.

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