Keaton v. ERMC – Proving Injury in Course and Scope of Employment

An injured worker will receive workers’ compensation benefits after the North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the state industrial commissions decision to find credible the employee’s testimony that he hadn’t heard a supervisor give him a direct order not to touch a live wire near standing water. electriclightbulb

In Keaton v. ERMC III, the court noted that while it is true (per the 1982 decision in Hoyle v. Isenhour Brick & Tile Co.), that disobedience to a direct and specific order by a then-present supervisor will break the causal relation between employment and resulting injury, in this case, the plaintiff denied ever hearing the pertinent instruction from his boss. But because the full commission found credible the worker’s instruction that he didn’t hear this testimony, it stands to reason the worker could not disobey an order he never heard.

Therefore in this case, worker’s injuries are compensable. 

According to court records, plaintiff started work for defendant in November 2013, when he was hired as a maintenance supervisor. He was required to replace light bulbs, repair electrical outlets and occasionally do simple rewiring. He was also often required to operate potentially dangerous equipment and climb ladders.

In January 2014, worker received an emergency call notifying him a sprinkler head in a loading dock burst open and was pouring hundreds of gallons of water from the ceiling to the floor.

He arrived along with several other workers to begin the clean up. In addition to water and debris from the ceiling, there was a 6-foot fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling in front of the double doors people use to go in and out of the area. Water was dripping from the light fixture, which was still energized.

When most of the water and debris was cleared, the operations director on site prepared to take a break for lunch. This individual was plaintiff’s supervisor. He told plaintiff and another worker it seemed as if they had the situation under control. Supervisor then said he instructed plaintiff not to touch the hanging fluorescent light. The other co-worker said he heard it. Plaintiff, however, says he did not recall hearing this warning.

After the supervisor left, plaintiff said he became concerned about the fact that the energized light was right in an area where people were traveling in and out of the loading dock, and he worried about their safety. He was aware of the danger of working on live electrical wires when there was water present, but he didn’t consider this to be a serious hazard because it was “a simple 3 wires.” There was no standing water on the ground and plaintiff climbed a ladder to take down the light.

In the course of this task, plaintiff’s pliers touched a live wire, causing him to suffer electrical shock. The ladder was not insulated. Plaintiff jumped back as a result of the shock and fell off the ladder, suffering a severe ankle fracture and aggravation of an earlier shoulder injury.

When supervisor returned and was informed of the accident, he said to plaintiff, “I told you not to touch the light,” and wrote up plaintiff for insubordination.

Plaintiff suffered serious ankle fracture that required surgery and as of his workers’ compensation filing, he had not yet reached maximum medical improvement.

While a single commissioner did not find plaintiff’s testimony credible, the full commission did and chose to award him benefits. Employers appealed, and argued to the North Carolina Court of Appeals that the commission erred in this judgment and had not given any explanation for why they found plaintiff credible, reversing the single commissioner.

The appeals court stated defendants were essentially asking the justices to re-weigh issues of individual witness credibility, which is not the court’s function. Further, any complaint about the commission’s lack of explanation about its credibility findings should be taken up with the General Assembly, not the appeals court.

Finding now error of law, the appeals court affirmed.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Keaton v. ERMC III, June 7, 2016, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:

Study: New Workers at Higher Risk of Injury, Death, June 7, 2016, Asheville Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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