There are many Americans that drive commercial vehicles as part of their daily job. Since their jobs include driving, they must face the hazards of the roads and highways. What happens if an employee is involved in a car accident while working, and he is not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident? Will his failure to wear his seat belt harm his workers compensation claim?
The first thing we must consider is what kind of vehicle the employee is driving at the time of the accident. Different laws will apply to different vehicles. While passenger vehicles fall under state laws, some of the larger commercial tractor- trailers will be governed under federal laws.
It is important to remember that the Workers’ Compensation Act states “No compensation shall be allowed for an injury or death due to the employee’s willful misconduct… including the willful failure or refusal to use a safety appliance or perform a duty required by statute”. What does this mean? In general, a small refusal to follow a rule will NOT harm a workers’ comp claim, BUT an intentional refusal to follow a rule that obviously involves serious injury will harm a workers’ compensation claim.
Let’s apply some facts to determine how the rule works.
Question 1: John is driving a tractor-trailer for his employer when he is pushed off the highway by another truck. At the time of the accident, John was not wearing his seat belt. John has a clean driving record and usually wears his seat belt. That particular day, John simply forgot to put his seat belt on after he got in the truck. Will his failure to wear his seat belt harm his workers’ comp claim?
Answer: NO. John will be able to recover his injuries under his workers’ compensation claim. Here, while federal laws do require that truck drivers wear seat belts, John’s failure to wear his seat belt was not intentional (or was not willful misconduct) and it was not the cause of the accident.
Question 2: This time let’s assume that John has previous citations from both his employer and the state for not wearing his seat belt. John has made it known to his employer that he dislikes wearing his seat belt. Before John leaves for his job to drive his tractor-trailer, his employer says “John there is a bad storm coming so you need to wear your seat belt”. John comments “Yeah, whatever.” John is driving through the rain storm when another truck pushes him off the road. Will John’s failure to wear his seat belt harm his workers’ comp claim?
Answer: YES. John will have a tough time convincing his employer that his failure to wear his seatbelt was not an intentional violation of a rule. The employer will be able to present evidence, including John’s past citations and comments, that John intentionally chose not to wear his seat belt. His actions can be considered willful misconduct when there is knowledge of obvious danger. John’s workers’ compensation claim will be harmed, and John could possibly lose his chances of recovering his workers’ compensation benefits for the accident.