Can I Get Workers’ Comp If I Wasn’t Wearing My Seatbelt in the Accident?

While the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act is supposed to be a “No Fault” statutory system to help injured employees, there are limits to what is covered.

If an employee chooses not to wear a seat belt in the company truck he was driving, he cannot get workers’ comp benefits for injuries suffered in a car wreck. The Virginia Court of Appeals recently ruled this, pointing to the conclusion of the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission (VWC) that the claimant’s injuries were caused by his own failure to wear the seat belt and his resulting ejection from the truck in a crash. The injured worker had lost on Review before the Full Commission. The Appeals Court agreed with the VWC on March 10, 2020 that the employee engaged in “willful misconduct” by failing to wear the seat belt, barring an award of benefits in Mizelle v. Holiday Ice Inc. (VLW 020-7-043).

Even if the injuries are catastrophic, a workers’ failure to wear safety belts will result in a denial of any Virginia Workers’ Compensation benefits

The driver worked for an ice company, delivering trailers of ice to customers. The worker drove a truck equipped with a seat belt. He said he knew the law required seat belt use, but he did not put the seat belt on. While operating on the highway, the truck veered across the median into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with a dump truck. The driver was ejected from the truck. He had kidney, liver and spleen lacerations, a broken left scapula and rib, and a pulmonary contusion. The injured worker sought wage loss and medical benefits. However, one of the doctors in the car wrote, his injuries were “consistent with being caused by an ejection and impact with the ground” and that “it is more likely than not that use of a seat belt would have limited or avoided [the] injuries.”

The Full Workers’ Compensation Commission concluded from the medical evidence and the driver’s own description that his injuries were proximately caused by his failure to wear the seat belt. The Court of Appeals found that there was sufficient evidence of willful misconduct. Judge Mary B. Malveaux wrote for the panel that under Virginia law, it is unnecessary to show that the employee, having the rule in mind, determined to break it. It is enough to show that, knowing the rule, he intentionally performed the forbidden act.

Malveaux wrote, “Claimant’s conduct clearly demonstrated his rejection of what the statute demanded and his willful choice not to comply with the statute.”

The court also concluded that the record supported the finding of proximate cause. The judges said it was uncontested that the driver was not wearing the seat belt and that, when he struck the dump truck, he was ejected from his vehicle and landed on the pavement. They pointed to the opinion of the trauma physician that the injuries were consistent with ejection and an impact with the ground. The doctor went on to say it was more likely than not that a seat belt would have limited or prevented the injuries, the court noted.

“The Commission found that claimant’s injuries were proximately caused by his failure to wear his seat belt and his resulting ejection from his truck, and the uncontested and uncontroverted evidence noted above supports that finding,” Malveaux wrote for the Virginia Court of Appeals. This is now the law in Virginia and employees need to use their safety belts, even when in a hurry or for short trips.

The Abrams Landau law team has tried “willful misconduct” cases and successfully handled seat belt crash cases. If you or someone you know has been injures due to no fault of your own, please give us a call (703-796-9555) or email us at Abrams Landau, Ltd.