Friday, October 3, 2014

Mississippi Going & Coming

I don't know if Linde Gas in Mississippi is self-insured, or if it has any leverage over the decision making process of claims management, but to me a recent case out of the state Court of Appeals seems to indicate that there was some wrongfully placed emotion dictating the management of a work comp claim.

Larry Edmonds worked for Linde Gas as an instrumentation technician, responsible for maintaining the instruments at the Linde Gas plant that supplied oxygen, nitrogen and argon, through a pipeline to the steel plants in Columbus, Brandon, Vicksburg and north Mississippi.

Edmonds normally would travel to the Columbus plant every other week and work Mondays through Fridays, from 7:00 a.m. until 3:00 or 3:30 p.m. He would report and travel to the plant locations in Brandon, Vicksburg and north Mississippi during the alternating weeks.

Sometime he would also be called back to a plant to make repairs after his normal work day had concluded.

Linde gave Edmonds a Ford F-150 pickup truck and paid for its maintenance, insurance and fuel, to use to travel to and from work and to the other plants. Edmonds was paid for his travel time when he responded to calls outside of his normal work hours.

While on his way to report to work at the Columbus plant on Oct. 21, 2010, Edmonds suffered injuries in a car crash that he doesn't remember much about, though he testified that he didn't get sufficient sleep, and had taken pain medication before heading out at 5:45 a.m.

Edmonds claimed that he was driving the speed limit, and it was still dark outside when the accident happened. He recalled seeing the taillights of a gravel truck moments before his crash, but little else.

Linde's investigation determined that Edmonds' headlights were not on, that Edmonds was not wearing a seatbelt and that he was speeding.

Based on the investigator's report and because Edmonds had two prior car accidents while driving a company vehicle, Linde terminated his employment.

Edmonds filed a workers' compensation claim, but Linde denied it based on the "going and coming rule."

Editorial pause: to the disinterested observer, assertion of this defense on these facts was facetious: company vehicle, demanding travel schedule, payment of expenses, on-call status all conspire against this argument. Nice try though...

Linde also asserted that the accident resulted from Edmonds' willful intent to injure himself because of his medication, failure to sleep, speeding and lack of seat belt, which would bar compensation pursuant to Mississippi Code Annotated Section 71-3-7(4).

A workers' compensation judge rejected Linde's defenses and granted compensation to Edmonds.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals upheld the WCJ's ruling.

On the going and coming, the court excoriated the employer: "The law is clear that the employer-provided-transportation exception to the 'going and coming' rule allows an employer to assume responsibility for the employee's travel either by paying the transportation costs or by providing a 'company vehicle,'" the court said.

The court also said the evidence of Edmonds' lack of sleep and consumption of pain medication did not demonstrate a willful intent to cause injury to himself.

Curiously, Judge Virginia Carlton dissented on the willful intent finding, arguing that Edmonds "imparted risks into his travel" by driving without turning his headlights on, while not wearing a seatbelt, while speeding, driving while not feeling well and while under the influence of pain medication.

"Driving under such conditions reflects a voluntary act by Edmonds and a willingness to incur risk outside the scope of his employment," Carlton opined.

Judge Carlton apparently dismisses any idea that Edmonds might just be stupid, which is not grounds for denying workers' compensation compensability.

Linde Gas v. Edmonds, No. 2013-WC-01942-COA, 09/30/2014, can be read here.

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