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Electrocuted airport worker not entitled to benefits: Appeals court

airport worker

An employee electrocuted at Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., failed to prove his injuries arose out of his employment, the Virginia Court of Appeals held Monday.

In a 2-1 decision in O’Donoghue v. United Continental Holdings Inc., the court affirmed the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission, holding that the United Airlines Inc. employee’s injuries were caused by “an act of God” and not compensable under the state’s workers compensation act.  

On Aug. 1, 2011, Cary O’Donoghue was working as a ramp serviceman loading and unloading airplanes when thunderstorms led to a temporary closure of the outdoor ramp. Later, the ramp was reopened and the worker positioned a metal ladder next to the Boeing 787 that had just arrived to access the plane. He claimed that as he touched the toggle switch to open the cargo door, he felt a blue arc come out of the control panel and felt electricity go through his body. He told his supervisor he had been struck by lightning and immediately sought medical treatment. The ramp was again closed due to weather conditions.

Later, Mr. O’Donoghue said he did not know the source of the electricity that injured him, stating that it could have been “static electricity” from the ground or aircraft or a lightning strike. The deputy commissioner noted that in Virginia, “the mere occurrence of an injury due to a lightning strike while at work is insufficient to invoke the coverage of the Workers' Compensation Act and that a claimant must prove, additionally, that the conditions of the employment collaborated in causing the injury” and the commission unanimously denied benefits.

Mr. O’Donoghue appealed, but the Virginia Court of Appeals in Alexandria affirmed the decision. The majority said that Virginia’s case law specifically involving lightning strikes compelled it to hold that the commission did not err in refusing to award benefits. Under the established precedent, the court said, the commission was entitled to conclude that without “specific” evidence regarding the risks associated with Mr. O’Donoghue’s assigned duties, it could not assess whether being injured by a lightning strike was an actual risk of the conditions of his employment.

Judge Glen Huff dissented from the majority opinion, arguing that the commission erred as a matter of law when it held that Mr. O’Donoghue could not prove he suffered an injury “arising out of his employment” because the cause of the electrocution was “speculative.”

“I would remand this case to the full Commission for rehearing with instructions that the claimant need not prove the exact mechanism of his electrocution in order to recover,” he wrote in his dissent. “Whether the electrocution was caused by an untimely lightning strike, static discharge, or a fault in the aircraft, claimant would have had no reason to touch the cargo door switch at that time, under those conditions, were he not required to by his employer.”

Attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to requests for comment.




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