Crash While Driving Company Van to Customer’s House NOT Covered by Company!

In an unpublished decision by the Virginia Court of Appeals, a worker was killed while driving a company van, to an appointment with a customer, but denied Worker’s Compensation benefits. The appellate court ruled that counsel for the deceased worker, “failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that his injuries arose from an actual risk of his presence on a public street.” The case is Hazelwood v. VIA Satellite Inc. & the Travelers Insurance.

The facts of the case are tragic. The worker left his Virginia home, in order to perform work for his employer. Driving the van, he entered a curve, “where the speed limit was the same as on the rest of the road, 55 mph. While traveling on this curve, [the worker’s] vehicle left [its] lane, crossed the centerline and struck a tractor trailer in a head-on crash. “The Virginia state police who responded to the scene arrive this both vehicles were on fire. “Hazelwood was airlifted to a burn center both of his legs were amputated, and he was treated for 3rd degree burns. He remained in this hospital for 27 consecutive weeks before eventually succumbing to his injuries.”

To win a Virginia Worker’s Compensation claim, the disabled employee must not only: be in a place that they are expected to be in; doing job related duties; but also show that their injuries were as a result of a risk inherent in the employment to which they are exposed to by virtue of their work.

Hazelwood was not physically or mentally impaired at the time of the crash. The company van contains a GPS device to transmit the vehicle speed and location to a cloud-based system approximately every 90 seconds. The last set of data transmitted from the GPS that day show that Hazelwood was traveling 55 mph.  Claimants counsel filed claims for injuries, medical benefits, permanent partial disability, wage loss and death benefits. The insurance company asserted that Hazelwood was not injured by an accident arising out of his employment as defined out to the Virginia Worker’s Compensation Act. The Virginia Workers Compensation Commission found that Hazelwood did not prove his injuries arose out of his employment and denied his claims, stating the injured worker “failed to establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that his injuries arose from an actual risk of his presence on the street.”  Furthermore, “after weighing the evidence in this case, we find the evidence is simply not sufficient to show Mr. Hazelwood’s speed around the curve caused or contributed to the accident. ”

Herndon Virginia workers comp lawyer Doug Landau does not agree with the Court of Appeals decision denying benefits to an employee driving a company van to a worksite who died as the result of a fiery, head-on crash.

The Court of Appeals pointed out that the injured worker bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that his injury was caused by a hazard on the road. For a claim to be compensable, there must be proof of a “critical link” between the conditions of the highway and the injuries sustained. What Herndon Worker’s Compensation lawyer Doug Landau found particularly interesting was the fact that both the insurance company and the claimant’s attorney hired accident reconstruction experts. Both experts rendered opinions that 55 miles an hour was too fast for this curve. One expert indicated the maximum safe speed was 42 miles an hour, and the other indicated that drivers who went over 35 miles an hour into the curve where at an increased safety risk. A critical fact was that there were no road signs warning drivers to slow down or indicating any other speed limit. The claimant’s accident reconstruction expert opined that the lack of road signs warning drivers to slow down more likely than not contributed to Hazelwood’s crash. However, the Court of Appeals decision notes that,

it is clear from the record that the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission did consider this report, but simply gave it little or no weight. As the factfinder, the Commission was entitled to determine the credibility of witnesses and the wait to be given their testimony.

Doug Landau disagrees with this decision. The injured worker was performing a duty for his employer. He was operating the employer’s vehicle. The GPS data showed 55 miles an hour, which both experts agreed was in excess of the maximum safe speed for the curve. There were no signs indicating a lower speed limit where that vehicle should slow down. The decision should have been that this was a compensable claim, and compensation and death benefits should have been awarded. However, the Virginia Court of Appeals ended its decision as follows:

“Because the Commission’s conclusion that Hazelwood failed to establish that his injuries arose from an actual risk of his presence on the street was not plainly wrong as a matter of law, nor was it unsupported by credible evidence, we find the Commission did not err and affirm the judgment of the Commission.”

After this decision, Landau predicts that there will be many car crash cases in the future that will be litigated, as insurance defense lawyers will see an opportunity, especially where there it was not a defect in the road, faulty maintenance of the van, or some other “increased risk of the employment.”

If you, or someone you care about, has been injured in a workplace accident, car crash, airport or airline incident, and there are questions as to the laws that apply and the remedies that may be achieved, please call us at 703–7 96–9555, or email us at once. They are strict legal time limits in injury and disability cases.