A Mississippi man serving a 12-year prison sentence for manslaughter should receive workers compensation benefits after he was shocked by a power line at his former job, even though the employer argued that he intentionally hurt himself, the Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled.
Lonnie Smith worked as a lineman for Ripley, Miss.-based Tippah Electric Power Association, court records show. In 2010, Mr. Smith was working on a crew that was installing electrical service for a residential trailer, and his duties included disconnecting a clamp on a primary, or “hot,” electrical line.
A Tippah engineer, who planned to bring Mr. Smith into the office for an unannounced drug test, asked Mr. Smith to come down from the elevated bucket platform in which he was working, records show. While the engineer and other Tippah crew members were performing other tasks or not paying attention, Mr. Smith's hands touched two power lines, and he was shocked.
Both of Mr. Smith's hands were amputated below the elbows as a result of his accident, according to court filings. He testified in court that he did not remember how he came into contact with the power lines, but said he had dropped an unspecified object inside of his bucket platform prior to the accident.
Mr. Smith filed for workers comp benefits, but Tippah claimed that Mr. Smith intentionally hurt himself on the job site, records show. The company contended that Mr. Smith was facing a murder investigation, had been acting “depressed (and) panicked” the day of his accident and that he likely was trying to commit suicide by electrocuting himself.
Records from the Mississippi Department of Corrections show that Mr. Smith was convicted of manslaughter in 2011 and that he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
A Mississippi administrative judge denied benefits to Mr. Smith, based on the fact that Mr. Smith could not remember how his accident happened and that testimony from Tippah workers contradicted Mr. Smith's testimony, court filings show. The Mississippi Workers' Compensation Commission and the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.
The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed those rulings in a 6-3 decision Thursday. Tippah failed to provide “substantial evidence” that Mr. Smith intentionally injured himself, the majority opinion reads, even though the company argued that Mr. Smith had been acting strangely in the wake of his murder investigation.
“We find that the (administrative judge's) and commission's decisions are not based on substantial evidence, but rather are based on assumptions and speculation regarding how the accident occurred,” the majority opinion reads. “These include assumptions that Smith was depressed or suicidal and that Smith believed (the Tippah engineer) was at the work site to cause trouble for Smith.”
The court's dissenting opinion said evidence showed that Mr. Smith intended to harm himself. That included the fact that Mr. Smith was seen grabbing two power lines and wearing leather gloves, rather than rubber gloves, at the time of this accident — two safety errors that the dissenting justices said Mr. Smith knew better than to commit.
“Smith had worked for Tippah for approximately sixteen years at the time of the accident,” the dissent reads. “He had been trained on the job, he had attended lineman training classes, and he attended safety classes every other month. Smith considered himself to be an experienced lineman, and he was considered by his coworkers and employers to be a good lineman. Smith testified that 'he knew what would result if one were to touch a hot phase and a neutral phase at the same time.' Although Smith claims that he did not touch the neutral line, the evidence indicates that he unquestionably did.”
The case was remanded to the Mississippi workers comp commission to determine Mr. Smith's benefits.