Intentional Violation of Employer Rules or Policies Precludes Recovery … Except When It Doesn’t
The Illinois Worker’s Compensation Commission released two decisions in November 2009 involving improper employee conduct and that conduct’s effect on the compensability of a claim under the Act. In Reliford v. OSF St. Francis Medical Center, 09 IWCC 1254 (2009), the Commission affirmed the arbitrator’s decision denying benefits to an employee who fell on the employer’s parking lot heading to a smoke break in violation of company policy. In Stout v. Gerresheimer Glass, 09 IWCC 1251 (November 2009), the Commission upheld an award of benefits to an employee who was injured while intentionally violating his employer’s safety rules. Both cases address an important distinction to keep in mind when evaluating cases involving unsafe conduct on the part of the employee.
Reliford v. OSF St. Francis Medical Center
In Reliford, the Petitioner fell in the Emergency Department parking lot at OSF St. Francis Medical Center. At the time of the fall, the Petitioner was on a paid break heading towards a sidewalk adjacent to the property owned by the respondent OSF St. Francis Medical Center to smoke.
Respondent mandated a “Tobacco Free Environment” policy at the time of Petitioner’s fall. This policy prohibited smoking while on a paid break and prohibited smoking on the property adjacent to OSF St. Francis Medical Center where the petitioner fell. Documentation was submitted into evidence by the Respondent outlining the Tobacco Free Policy.
Given the clear policy, the Arbitrator found that the Petitioner took herself out of course of employment and assumed a personal risk when she left OSF to smoke. Given that the Petitioner was aware of the no smoking policy, benefits were denied.
Stout v. Gerresheimer Glass
In Gerresheimer, the Petitioner was employed as a millwright for the Respondent. Without his manager’s knowledge, order or instruction, the Petitioner removed a broken exhaust fan from the Respondent’s building and placed it on his employer’s bandsaw with the intent to remove certain pieces of the fan, and to then reuse those pieces in another of the employer’s fans. The fan did not fit well on the bandsaw table. Consequently, Petitioner opted to operate the bandsaw without a safety guard, in direct violation of company safety rules. Petitioner admitted to attending safety classes given by the Respondent including the use of guards on the equipment that had available guards. The Petitioner was injured when the bandsaw cut his left little finger.
In reviewing the Petitioner’s actions, the Arbitrator concluded that the Petitioner removed the exhaust from the garbage without the authorization of the Respondent, attempted to cut the fan without the authorization of the Respondent, intentionally violated the Respondent’s safety rules by not using a guard, and was negligent, and to the point of being reckless. Despite these findings, the Arbitrator found that the Petitioner was fulfilling his work duties, in that he set out to repair another fan on the facility roof. The Arbitrator concluded that that Petitioner was not acting out of any personal motivation or for any personal gain, and that he was doing exactly the thing that he was employed to do, and the resulting injury therefore arose out of and in the course of his employment.
Cases involving improper conduct by an employee in violation of company policy or rules are not susceptible to blanket statements, but rather turn on the individual facts in each case. The critical inquiry is not what the employee was doing at the time of the injury, but why he or she was doing it. If the employee was performing his normal job duties and was attempting to further the business of the employer, the case is much more likely to be deemed compensable than if the employee is acting for personal motivation or gain.
Originally published in the Summer 2010 edition of Quinn Quarterly.