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Court Upholds Appellate Ruling That Worker’s Firing For Conduct That Caused On-the Job Injury Does Not Constitute ‘Voluntary Abandonment of Employment’

The Supreme Court of Ohio today affirmed a court of appeals decision that ordered the Ohio Industrial Commission to reinstate an award of temporary total disability (TTD) benefits to a truck driver based on a finding that the driver’s firing by his employer for an excessive number of traffic accidents did not constitute a “voluntary abandonment of employment.”

In a  4-3 majority opinion, the court  followed and reaffirmed its 2007 holding in State ex rel. Gross v. Industrial Commission (Gross II) that an employee’s firing for a violation of workplace rules that caused the worker’s qualifying  injury is not a voluntary abandonment of employment that renders the injured worker ineligible to continue receiving workers’ compensation benefits.

The case involved a TTD claim filed by truck driver George Haddox based on back injuries he suffered in a December 2005 traffic accident that occurred in the course of his employment with Forest City Technologies Inc.  The accident, for which Haddox was cited by police, was his third chargeable accident in a 12-month period and resulted in his firing under Forest City’s company rules.

A staff hearing officer with the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation initially denied Haddox’s TTD claim in 2006 on the basis that Haddox had violated a company policy that required a driver to be terminated after receiving three moving violations within one year, and consequently, his conduct that resulted in the December 2005 crash amounted to voluntarily removing himself from his job.  After the Supreme Court announced its Gross II decision in September 2007, Haddox submitted a new claim based on additional health conditions related to his 2005 crash injuries, and a district hearing officer approved an award of TTD.

The Industrial Commission subsequently overruled the hearing officer’s decision and issued an order denying Haddox’s TTD claim.  In its opinion, the commission held that, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s intervening decision in Gross II, the commission’s 2006 finding that Haddox had voluntarily abandoned his employment should have been regarded as res judicata (a matter already finally adjudicated and not subject to further litigation).  The commission also determined that even if Haddox’s claims were considered in light of Gross II, he had not been fired because of his December 2005 accident, but because he had become uninsurable under his employer’s auto insurance policy, and therefore his termination constituted a voluntary abandonment of employment.

Haddox appealed the commission’s ruling.  On review, the Tenth District Court of Appeals concluded that the commission had abused its discretion in denying his claim, and issued a writ of mandamus ordering the commission to award Haddox TTD benefits or reconsider the denial of benefits dating back to the date of the original injury in accordance with Gross II. The Industrial Commission exercised its right to appeal the Tenth District’s decision to the Supreme Court.

In today’s per curiam lead opinion, the court agreed with the court of appeals’ application of Gross II in this case.  The opinion stated: “The court of appeals held that because the moving violations occurred prior to and contemporaneously with the injury, [Haddox’s] termination was not a voluntary abandonment, because ‘[u]nder the terms of Gross II, [Haddox’s] actions prior to and concurrent with his industrial injury did not form a basis for concluding he voluntarily abandoned his employment, meaning the commission abused its discretion in concluding otherwise.’  The commission abused its discretion when it reconsidered the order on the basis of res judicata.” 

The court also held that when the commission reconsidered Haddox’s application, the commission’s exercise of its continuing jurisdiction reopened the issue and permitted the commission to modify its initial order denying temporary-total-disability compensation and to award compensation dating back to the date of Haddox’s injury. Consequently, the court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

The court’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who also entered a separate concurrence, and by Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and William M. O’Neill.  Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger concurred in judgment only.  Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy and Judith L. French dissented without opinion.

In her concurring opinion, Chief Justice O’Connor noted that she dissented from the court’s 2007 decision in Gross II, and continues to believe that case was wrongly decided.  But because the Ohio Supreme Court has not overturned Gross II as a binding precedent under the criteria set forth in Westfield Insurance Co. v. Galatis (2003), the Chief Justice wrote that the court must  follow its prior decisions “to foster predictability and continuity, prevent the arbitrary administration of justice, and provide clarity to the citizenry.”

 

“Because Gross II remains the law of Ohio,” she wrote,  “we are duty-bound to follow it until this court overrules it or the General Assembly acts to vitiate its holding. In light of the court’s opinion here, there should be no mistake that the remedy for Gross II, if there is to be one, must come from the legislative branch.  I urge the General Assembly to act, but until it does, I must follow the law.  I thus concur in the majority’s reasoning and judgment in this case.”

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

2011-1622. State ex rel. Haddox v. Indus. Comm., Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-794.
Franklin App. No. 10AP-152, 2011-Ohio-3923.  Judgment affirmed.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer and O’Neill, JJ., concur.
Lanzinger, J., concurs in judgment only.
O’Donnell, Kennedy, and French, JJ., dissent.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2013/2013-Ohio-794.pdf

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