The Ohio Supreme Court recently upheld a restaurant franchise’s right to terminate the temporary disability benefits of a youth badly burned at work. The case centered on whether the youth had voluntarily abandoned employment, but was won by establishing culpability. Predictably, the accident was blamed on this one human’s error with no examination of ergonomic risk factors. For this reason and others it can be argued that the justice system shortchanged David Gross.
The 16-year-old was working at a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchise in the Dayton area on November 26, 2003, when boiling water spewed from a pressure cooker and caused third-degree burns around his hip and groin and second-degree burns on his arms, torso and back. Two co-workers were also burned.
KFC’s investigation three months after the accident determined that the youth repeatedly ignored company policy, written safety guidelines, and a warning label on the pressure cooker, leading to the accident that burned him and two others.
In February, 2004, following the internal probe, FHC fired him. The company then successfully argued before the Industrial Commission of Ohio that Gross’
termination for willful misconduct amounted to voluntary abandonment of employment, grounds for cancellation of his benefits.
Gross appealed the commission’s decision. The Court of Appeals for Franklin County sided with Gross, concluding that he was fired because he had been injured in the workplace. The appeals court, citing previous Ohio Supreme Court case law, called Gross’ separation from employment “involuntary,” which meant that Gross still was eligible for temporary total disability benefits.
The KCF owners, Food, Folks & Fun, appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. The Court studied Gross’ argument, particularly his denial “that he abandoned his employment” voluntarily. Gross argued that he could not have voluntarily abandoned his job because he wasn’t physically able to perform the job when he was fired
The Ohio Supreme Court majority disagreed, reasoning that the misconduct that caused Gross to be fired occurred at the same time as the accident and the onset of disability. Consequently, the high court majority concluded, Gross voluntarily abandoned his job.
Ohio has a no-fault workers compensation rule and the KFC strategy should not have worked, according to Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton. Dissenting from the majority opinion, she wrote that she believes the Commission abused its discretion when it concluded that the claimant had voluntarily abandoned his job. And she saw “the great potential for abuse” in allowing a simple allegation of misconduct to preclude temporary total disability compensation.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2006-01-17.