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Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania Reverses Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board in Favor of Deceased Service Station Attendant

A manager at a service station died during a robbery after the robber struck him with a vehicle and caused a fatal brain injury.  The manager attempted to stop the robber as the robber was fleeing, and his estate sought compensation from the employer, claiming the injury was work related.  The Workers’ Compensation Judge (WJC) agreed with the manager’s estate and granted him benefits, but the employer appealed and the Workers’ Compensation Board (Board) reversed the award to the manager’s estate from the WJC.  The manager’s estate appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which agreed with the manager’s estate and reversed the Board’s Order.

To successfully obtain benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act, an employee must be injured while performing work-related duties.  Benefits may be denied if the employee wasn’t performing work-related duties or violated a rule established by the employer.  The employer is may avoid paying benefits if the violation of the work rule caused the injury.   The employer in this case, Wetzel III v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, attempted to argue both to shield against liability and payment of benefits to the deceased managers estate.

The manager worked at a service station that had been robbed several times in the past.  The manager and other employees carried personal guns as protection as a result.  After the workers’ compensation claim was filed, the employer raised what is known as an affirmative defense – claiming that the manager violated a positive work rule by carrying a weapon.  The employer also claimed that the manager was not performing a work-related duty when he ran after the robber.  The employer argued that the employee was told not to “be a hero” and not to bring weapons.  Testimony from the deceased’s manager’s co-workers negated the picture, and the Commonwealth Court considered the timing of the manager’s work duties with the actions taken in the robbery.

The Commonwealth Court first began its decision by stating the Workers’ Compensation Act statute was intended to be beneficial to the worker, and should be read liberally to maximize assistance to the worker or the worker’s family.  The Commonwealth Court chose not to focus on whether the manager’s actions of chasing the robber was within the scope of this employment duties, but whether or not the manager abandoned his duties.  Because the manager was called into work and was performing work duties when the robber first stole cash from the register, the Commonwealth Court determined that running after the robber was not an “abandonment” of his duties that would bar recovery of benefits under the Act.  The Court also determined that the act of chasing the robber was not to further his own personal interests, but the employer’s interest.  Regarding the work rule violation, the Court looked at the history of the employer permitting firearms by the employees and not previously reprimanding the deceased manager when he used a firearm to thwart a prior robbery. Due to this history, the Court found that the employee was not actively disengaging himself from this duty.  

The Pennsylvania workers’ compensation attorneys at Needle Law Firm have the experience you need to litigate your workers’ compensation claim.  Our attorneys aggressively pursue each claim so that you and your family receive the benefits your worked hard for and deserve.  For a free, confidential consultation, call 570-344-1266.

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