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Jones v. Crothall Laundry

Court of Appeals of Virginia

February 12, 2019

ANDRE JONES
v.
CROTHALL LAUNDRY and NEW HAMPSHIRE INSURANCE COMPANY

          FROM THE VIRGINIA WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION

          Casey Duchesne (ChasenBoscolo Injury Lawyers, on brief), for appellant.

          Charles F. Midkiff (Brendan C. Horgan; Midkiff, Muncie & Ross, P.C., on brief), for appellees.

          Present: Chief Judge Decker, Judges Humphreys and Huff

          OPINION

          MARLA GRAFF DECKER CHIEF JUDGE

         Andre Jones (the claimant) appeals the Workers' Compensation Commission's decision denying his claim for benefits. He argues that the Commission erred by finding that his injury was caused by his violation of a known safety rule and that the rule was enforced by Crothall Laundry (the employer). For the following reasons, we determine that credible evidence supports the Commission's finding that the claimant's act of entering the employer's machinery area without using the gate, which would have deactivated the equipment, proximately caused his injury. In addition, the Commission did not err in concluding that the employer enforced the safety rule. Consequently, we affirm the Commission's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         On October 14, 2017, the claimant worked as a "team leader" for the employer, a commercial laundry facility operator. That day, he entered a fenced area in which laundry was processed in order to move some mops. As the claimant did so, a piece of moving machinery pinned his leg against a conveyor belt. He suffered a serious leg injury as a result.

         The claimant sought medical and disability benefits for his injury. The employer defended against the claim based on the claimant's alleged failure to follow a safety rule.

         At the evidentiary hearing, the deputy commissioner considered the claimant's deposition and live testimony. The claimant explained that the area in which he received his injury was surrounded by a chain link fence. He acknowledged that employees were supposed to enter the area through the interlock gate in the fence. According to the claimant, the gate was designed to deactivate the machinery in the interior area when opened. The claimant affirmed that he knew that this particular safety rule existed and was enforced. Nevertheless, on the day of his injury, the claimant bypassed the gate and entered the area with the machinery through a separate opening in the fence without deactivating the equipment. The entire sequence of events was recorded on a video that was entered into evidence.

         There was some evidence that employees did not always enter the fenced area through the gate. Nelson Gonzales, a "[t]unnel operator" for the employer and coworker of the claimant, testified that he had seen other unnamed employees entering the fenced area by circumventing the gate. Gonzales said that he had observed such actions in the presence of supervisors. However, he had never reported the safety rule violations to his supervisor.

         The claimant explained that opening the gate at times failed to deactivate the machines but he believed the gate was working properly on the day of his injury.[2] He said that both a button and a kick plate inside the fenced area would also stop the machinery when pressed. According to the claimant, he attempted to press them but did not manage to deactivate the equipment before his injury. These alleged actions are not observable on the video of his entry into the fenced area and the resulting accident.

         Two managers testified regarding the enforcement of the safety rule at issue in this case. Christopher Hallow, [3] a general manager for the employer, stated that an employee who entered the fenced area without opening the gate to de-energize the equipment first would be terminated. Hallow explained that three months before the accident, he had given a verbal warning to other workers whom he overheard discussing the possibility of entering the fenced area without opening the gate. Further, he testified that he was not "aware that anybody was" entering the fenced area without using the gate. Carlos Gordon, a production manager for the employer, confirmed that the company enforced the safety rule that employees must enter the fenced area only through the interlock gate.

         After hearing the case, the deputy commissioner found that the employer proved that the claimant violated a known safety rule and that such conduct was the proximate cause of his injury. Noting some inconsistencies in the claimant's testimony, the deputy commissioner also concluded that the employer enforced ...


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