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Case Law Update: Voluntary Abandonment

3/6/2015 | Category: Workers Compensation-Voluntary Abandonment

If you own a business, sooner or later you will have to deal with an employee who quits.  I recently read some great examples of the wrong way to quit a job, published by the Cleveland Plain Dealer ("Top 10 oddest, often hilarious, ways employees quit their jobs").  Number one on the list is an employee who baked a cake with her resignation letter written on top.  As your attorney, I would advise you to not eat that cake.

In the workers’ compensation world, an employer-employee relationship is often strained by a workplace injury.  Unfortunately, this may lead to a situation where an employee abruptly quits.

Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court revisited an injured worker’s entitlement to temporary total disability compensation after they quit their job.  Generally speaking, if an injured worker voluntarily abandons (quits) his former position of employment, he is no longer entitled to temporary total disability compensation.  The concept of voluntary abandonment usually comes into play when an employer offers an injured worker a bona-fide, good faith, light-duty job offer and the injured worker refuses the offer (for more information on voluntary abandonment, check out these articles HERE and HERE).  The following case involved a nearly simultaneous conversation between an employer and an injured worker concerning a modified duty work release and the injured worker walking off the job.

In Hildebrand v. Wingate Transport, Inc., Hildebrand notified his supervisor of a low back injury.  Five days later, Hildebrand sought treatment with a chiropractor.  The chiropractor then wrote Hildebrand a note releasing him to modified duty work.  The next day, Hildebrand informed his Employer (Wingate) that he would need to be placed on modified duty. 

At that point, the conversation became heated.  Previously, Wingate loaned a Jeep to Hildebrand for personal use.  Wingate decided to ask Hildebrand to return the Jeep.  Hildebrand became agitated and asked whether he was being fired, to which Wingate assured him he was not being fired, but it was time to return the Jeep.   

Frustrated, Hildebrand began moving tools and equipment into another truck.  This piqued Wingate’s attention, as he wanted to know what was being taken.  As tempers flared, the police were eventually called to the premises.  After arrival of the police, Hildebrand returned the items and left.  At no time did Wingate threaten to fire Hildebrand, nor did Wingate subsequently send any letters to Hildebrand, terminating his employment.

A week later, however, Hildebrand filed for unemployment compensation.  Hildebrand was denied unemployment compensation because he quit for personal reasons.  Probably not a coincidence, Hildebrand applied for temporary total disability compensation after he was denied unemployment compensation.  This request for compensation ultimately led to the following question: did Hildebrand voluntarily abandon his former position of employment, thus precluding temporary total disability compensation?

In support of his argument for compensation, Hildebrand relied on case law that dealt with injured workers who were collecting temporary total disability compensation, violated a written work rule, and were terminated.  Sometimes a safe haven for injured workers, the case law generally holds that an injured worker cannot abandon his former position of employment if he was physically incapable of performing the job duties relative to his former position of employment.

Wingate, on the other hand, argued that Hildebrand’s loss of wages had nothing to do with his injury. The Supreme Court agreed.  The Court analyzed the issue by asking whether the employee’s departure from his employment was causally related to the allowed conditions of the claim.  Quite simply, “if the injured worker leaves the workforce for reasons unrelated to the industrial injury, there is no loss of earnings due to the injury, and the employee is not eligible for temporary-total-disability compensation.” 

Analyzing the facts of the case, the Court found that the mere coincidental timing of Hildebrand’s doctor’s note did not overcome the fact that Hildebrand left work that day following an unrelated argument about the use of a Jeep.  There was no reliable evidence presented that showed that Wingate intended to fire Hildebrand.  The evidence showed that after the police arrived, Hildebrand walked off the job.  In the end, the Court upheld the denial of temporary total disability compensation.

This case provides a strong argument for Ohio employers faced with a similar fact pattern.  Too often, an injured worker’s actions are ignored in favor of simply granting compensation.  The Supreme Court acknowledged that it does not make sense to compensate an injured worker for lost time from work when the injured worker’s own actions, and not the injury, caused the lost time.

If you find yourself in a situation with an injured worker threatening to quit, please do not hesitate to immediately contact the workers’ compensation attorneys at Ross, Brittain & Schonberg for guidance.  If you can avoid it, you do not want to be on the hook for temporary total disability compensation—especially involving a former employee who may want to stick it to their ex-employer.

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