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Injured worker due comp because did not willfully violate policy

Man with shoulder pain

An employee of a residential treatment facility who was injured after scuffling with a young resident is entitled to workers compensation benefits, despite the employer’s contention that the worker willfully violated company policy during the time of his injury.

In Tennessee Clinical Schools Inc. v. Johns, a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, Special Workers Compensation Appeals Panel in Nashville affirmed a trial court’s decision on Friday, holding that the employer failed to show that the worker’s actions were willful to preclude him from receiving workers compensation.

Jeffrey Johns worked as a health care worker for Hermitage Hall, a therapeutic residential treatment facility for teenagers in Nashville owned by Tennessee Clinical Schools LLC. The company maintains a physical restraint policy, which only allows physical restraint when there is an imminent risk of a resident physically harming him or herself or others.

On Dec. 15, 2013, Mr. Johns, who had been working for the facility less than two months, was asked to stay beyond the end of his overnight shift to awaken a group of residents and get them ready for their morning medications and breakfast. He verbally prompted three male students in a room to get up, and after several minutes, tugged the blankets off a 13-year-old boy who would not get up. The boy began striking Mr. Johns until he released the blanket. Mr. Johns then grabbed the boy and he called for backup, but fell to the floor before help arrived, permanently injuring his shoulder.

Mr. Johns acknowledged that he used a one-person hold to retrain the boy, and that the policy said it was only to be used when there was a threat of imminent harm, but said he did so because the boy had already struck him several times and he was uncertain about what the boy would do next. He was unable to return to work because of his injury, and on Jan. 2, 2014, he was terminated for violating the restraint policy after it received a citation from the state.

Mr. Johns filed a claim for workers compensation on the ground that his injury was compensable and arose out of and during the course and scope of his employer. The facility, however, denied the claim on the basis that Tennessee law prohibits the recovery of benefits where an injury results from an employee’s willful misconduct.

A trial court held that Mr. Johns injuries were compensable. Although the company showed Mr. Johns had knowledge of the policy and that his excuses for violating the policy were not objectively sufficient, the court held that the situation supported the conclusion that he did not willfully violate the policy, and found that the facility failed to show it engaged in bona fide enforcement of the policy.

The facility appealed, but the Supreme Court of Tennessee’s Special Workers Compensation Appeals Panel affirmed the ruling. Although the court disagreed with the trial court’s holding that the company failed to show it engaged in bona fide enforcement of the policy, and reversed that decision, the court found that the restraint policy was not a “hard and fast rule,” but permitted restraining actions when determined that a resident posed a threat of danger. The court said that the policy seemingly “contemplates an emergency situation in which an employee must make a judgment call based not only on his or her training and experience, but also upon his or her subjective perception and judgment of the situation in the moment.” While a review might indicate that Mr. Johns’ judgment was incorrect, his action did not indicate that he acted willfully, but rather made an error in judgment.

The court, therefore, affirmed the trial court’s ruling in favor of Mr. Johns.

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




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