The Court of Appeals of Virginia has upheld a Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission decision that workers’ comp benefits cannot be awarded to a truck driver injured in an accident after failing to wear a seat belt.
This decision comes after claimant Parker Mizelle appealed the Commission’s decision, contending it was incorrect in finding he could not be awarded workers’ comp benefits because his injuries were caused by his intentional failure to wear a seat belt.
During the summer of 2018, Mizelle worked for employer Holiday Ice Inc. His responsibilities included delivering trailers of ice to various locations.
He testified that on September 6, 2018, he did not put on his seat belt after getting in his truck to deliver a party trailer of ice to Smithfield. Mizelle admitted, however, that since first obtaining his driver’s license, he has known Virginia law requires the use of a seat belt when driving. He acknowledged that he understood the seat belt law still applied and said he intended to put on his seat belt “at some point” during the delivery.
Mizelle also testified that to his knowledge, nothing was wrong with the truck’s seat belt and that he understood its purpose was to hold him in place, prevent him from bouncing around and keep him from being ejected in the event of an accident, the court record stated.
Less than five minutes after he began driving the truck, Mizelle said he felt a bump while traveling on a four-lane, divided highway. He looked in the driver’s side mirror and saw that the trailer of ice was beside him on the left side of his vehicle. He attempted to correct the truck, and when he did this, it veered from the highway into the median. His vehicle then crossed the median into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with a dump truck.
Mizelle, who still was not wearing his seat belt when the collision occurred, testified that he could not remember whether his body struck anything within the truck cab before he was ejected from the vehicle. He said he did not feel any discomfort until he regained consciousness and was lying on the pavement. He was then airlifted to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, where he was treated for numerous injuries including kidney, liver and spleen lacerations, a broken left scapula and rib and a pulmonary contusion, according to the court record.
Workers’ Compensation Claim
After the accident, Mizelle filed a claim seeking payment of unpaid medical bills and an award of medical benefits and temporary total disability benefits from the date of the accident. Holiday Ice defended the claim, contending he was barred from compensation because he willingly chose not to wear a seat belt.
In support of its claim, Holiday Ice submitted a questionnaire completed by Dr. Michael Martyak, the trauma physician who treated Mizelle at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. In responding to the questionnaire, Dr. Martyak stated Mizelle’s injuries were “consistent with being caused by an ejection and impact with the ground” and that “it is more likely than not that use of a seatbelt would have limited or avoided [claimant’s] injuries,” according to the court record.
Despite this, the deputy commissioner found Mizelle had suffered a compensable injury by accident and Holiday Ice had not been able to prove his failure to wear a seat belt constituted willful misconduct barring him from compensation. With this in mind, the deputy commissioner awarded Mizelle lifetime medical benefits and temporary total disability benefits.
Holiday Ice, however, requested a review by the full Commission. Upon review, the Commission reversed and vacated the award of benefits after finding Mizelle’s willful violation of a statute had caused his injuries.
The Commission noted that the only impact to which Mizelle testified was his body hitting the ground after he was ejected from the vehicle. He did not testify to any pain or injuries prior to that. Additionally, the Commission pointed to Dr. Martyak’s opinion supporting the conclusion that Mizelle’s injuries resulted from hitting the ground after being ejected from the truck. Mizelle appealed the Commission’s decision to the Court of Appeals of Virginia.
In order to receive benefits for an injury under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act, an employee needs to provide evidence proving the injury was caused by an accident, was sustained in the course of employment and arose out of employment.
On the other hand, when claiming willful misconduct, an employer needs to prove that the safety rule or other duty was reasonable, was known to the employee and was for the employee’s benefit, and that the employee intentionally engaged in the forbidden act. The employer also needs to prove that the employee’s misconduct was a cause of injury.
In his appeal, Mizelle argued the Commission was incorrect in finding that he willingly failed to put on his seat belt and that this failure to wear his seat belt was the cause of his injuries. He contended that Holiday Ice was required to prove his intention not to wear his seat belt, and this required evidence of more than negligence through inattention.
He also argued that there was insufficient credible evidence to prove that his injuries were caused by his failure to wear his seat belt. He contended that although he only testified to the impact when he hit the ground after being ejected from the truck, given the nature of the collision and his loss of consciousness, he would not have been able to differentiate the impact from the collision and the impact from hitting the ground.
Additionally, Mizelle claimed there is no credible evidence that his injuries would have been prevented by wearing a seat belt. He challenged the Commission’s reliance on Dr. Martyak’s opinion because the questionnaire completed by the doctor was prepared by Holiday Ice’s counsel, lacked a narrative format and contained leading and conclusory assertions, according to the court record.
In its decision, the appeals court found that it is unnecessary for Holiday Ice to provide evidence showing Mizelle knew Virginia’s seat belt law and was determined to break it, because it is enough to show that he knew of the rule and intentionally did not wear his seat belt.
Additionally, Mizelle testified that he intended to put his seat belt on “at some point,” but did not put it on when he began driving the truck. The appeals court stated this shows he was purposefully violating the rule. With this in mind, it concluded the Commission was correct in finding that Mizelle’s failure to wear his seat belt was willful.
The court was also not persuaded by Mizelle’s argument that there is no credible evidence his injuries could have been prevented by wearing a seat belt, as Dr. Martyak stated Mizelle’s injuries were consistent with being ejected from the vehicle and having an impact with the ground, rather than being due to other factors.
With this in mind, the court found credible evidence to support the Commission’s determination that Mizelle willfully failed to wear a seat belt and that this was the cause of his injuries. It affirmed the Commission’s decision that Mizelle’s willful misconduct barred him from receiving an award of benefits.
The case is Parker Mizelle v. Holiday Ice, Inc. and Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company.
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