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Worker who ignored warnings not entitled to benefits

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COLUMBUS, Ohio—A 16-year-old fast-food restaurant worker, who was seriously injured when he ignored directions about cleaning a pressure cooker and later was fired, is not entitled to workers compensation benefits, the Ohio Supreme Court said in a divided opinion.

David Gross' firing for workplace misconduct constituted a "voluntary abandonment" of his employment that bars him from receiving temporary total disability compensation, the court ruled 5-2 in State ex rel. Gross, appellee, vs. Industrial Commission of Ohio.

However, a strongly worded dissent said the decision "will place us on a slippery slope toward assessing fault in industrial accidents."

According to court records, the high school student had been working at a KFC restaurant about two months when he was injured in the November 2003 accident.

According to the Dec. 27, 2006, decision, Mr. Gross had been warned a number of times, both verbally and in writing, not to boil water in a pressure cooker to clean it.

On the night of the accident, one employee told him to stop putting water into the cooker and to clean it properly. "Moments later, a second co-worker warned Gross not to open the cooker's lid, as the now boiling water was under extreme pressure. Gross ignored both men and opened the lid, severely burning himself and two others," the court said.

KFC terminated his employment in February 2004 for refusing to follow instructions. In response to KFC's request, the Industrial Commission of Ohio halted the teen's disability compensation, ruling he voluntarily abandoned his job.

A state appellate court ruled that Mr. Gross' separation from employment was involuntary, so he was not disqualified from temporary total disability compensation.

However, the Ohio Supreme Court disagreed. Mr. Gross "argues that the purpose of the workers' compensation system is to compensate employees for the effects of workplace injury. Workers' compensation, he argues, was intended to remove negligence and fault—by either employee or employer—from the workplace equation," the opinion said.

"Gross willfully ignored repeated warnings not to engage in the proscribed conduct, yet still wishes to ascribe his behavior to simple negligence or inadvertence. To address his argument further is to validate that categorization—something we decline to do," the majority said in the opinion.

The dissent said Mr. Gross is entitled to temporary total disability compensation. The majority "is tacitly injecting fault into a no-fault system of compensation and reintroducing contributory negligence as a basis for defeating the right to recover compensation," the dissent stated. "Our workers' compensation awards are intended to compensate a worker who suffers an industrial injury without a determination of fault or wrongdoing."

Mr. Gross "was a teenager at the time of the accident, and, most likely, he was immature and naive. He suffered serious injuries as a consequence of his actions. However, the purpose behind workers compensation is to protect those who suffer work-related injuries, regardless of their own negligence or fault," the dissenting opinion stated.

The State ex rel., Gross, appellee., vs. Industrial Commission of Ohio, appellee; Food, Folks & Fun Inc., d.b.a. KFC, appellant, No. 2005-1689, Dec. 27, 2006.