Thanks to Cheryl Howell Oswalt, one of my fine associates, for the summary of a recent decision by the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals on a workers' compensation claim. The facts and results are set forth below:
Mercy Logging, LLC, v. Odom, No. 2101061(Ala. Civ. App. July 27, 2012) (Court reversed trial court’s permanent and total disability decision, as catching rattle snake did not arise out of the course of employment). Johnnie L. Odom filed a complaint seeking benefits under the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act, due to injuries that he sustained from rattlesnake bites on his hands, which allegedly arose out of and in the course of his employment with Mercy Logging, LLC. The trial court ruled that Odom was permanently and totally disabled, and held that Mercy was liable for $310,994.57 in reasonable and necessary medical expenses. The court also made a finding that Medicaid was entitled to a reimbursement for a potion of Odom’s medical expenses, and awarded attorneys’ fees.
Odom, age 46, had been working in the logging business for over 20 years at the time he sustained the injuries at issue in the present case. On the day of the incident, Aaron Perritt, the Mercy crew foreman (and the son of the owner of the company), was driving his logging crew (including Odom) back to their vehicles after finishing their work for the day, when he saw a long diamondback rattlesnake on the road. After Perritt swerved to kill the snake, one of the other crew members exclaimed, “Don’t kill it; let’s catch it.” Perritt stopped the truck on the side of the road, and all four of the crew members exited the vehicle. After one crew member tried to catch the snake with his hands, Odom pinned the snake with a forked stick behind the snake’s head. Perritt testified that, when he saw the snake strike the stick, he told Odom not to catch the snake, because it was going to bite Odom. Odom ignored the warning. “As Odom grasped the snake behind its head and dropped it into a bucket, he was repeatedly bitten on both hands.” The crew later measured the snake to be six feet, three inches long.
Odom was in a coma for the first two weeks of his hospitalization, and ended up spending 35 days in the hospital in intensive care. The trial court ruled that he was permanently and totally disabled as a result of injuries to his hands, arms, shoulder, upper back and neck.
Quoting section 25-5-51 of the Alabama Code, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals noted that “for an injury to be compensable under the Act, the injury must be caused by ‘an accident arising out of and in the court of employment.’” The Court determined that the travel time back to vehicles fell within the scope of the “going and coming rule”, as employer-furnished transportation. Importantly, however, the Court determined that in attempting to catch a rattlesnake, Odom was not “reasonably fulfilling the duties of his employment or engaged in doing something incident to it,” as required by Alabama case law precedent, even though the court noted that Alabama courts have decided that the course of employment includes any act expressly or implicitly authorized by the employer. Odom’s attorney argued that Odom was acting in the course of employment implicitly authorized by Perritt, his foreman, when he stopped the truck and exited the vehicle to catch the snake. The Court reasoned, however, that the implied consent rationale is limited by the requirement that “although the employer may have implicitly authorized the activity, if the employer receives no direct or indirect economic benefit from the activity, it does not become part of the employment.” Odom’s attorney argued that killing the snake furthered the economic objectives of Mercy because snakes are an occupational hazard to loggers in the woods, and the snake was just a few hundred yards from where Mercy’s loggers would be working the very next morning. The Court, however, found that the benefit of killing the snake was outweighed by the detriment to Odom, and did not agree with the attorney’s analysis.
The Court assumed that Odom’s activity with the snake occurred “in the course of” his employment, but found that it was not “arising out of” his employment. Whether an injury arises out of the claimant’s employment is basically a question of whether there is a causal relationship between the claimant’s performance of his or her duties and the complained-of injury. The Court held that Odom’s occupational risk of being bitten by a snake during logging operations in the woods did not have any causative relation to the snake bite that he actually suffered. The hazard that Odom encountered was not peculiar to loggers; it was one that would have been shared by any passing motorist who decided to stop and try to catch the snake.
The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals reversed the trial court’s rulings, and remanded the case for entry of judgment in favor of Mercy.
Practice pointers. Anytime an employee reports an on the job injury, no matter what the employer may think of it, it needs to be reported to the appropriate workers' compensation carrier. That is especially true when the exposure is in the mid 6 figures as in this case. And please don't play with snakes!!