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Compensability of WV Work Release Inmate Workers' Comp Claim Rejected

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Many people wonder whether inmates who are injured while on work release are entitled to recover workers' compensation. In West Virginia (WV), the typical legal answer applies: It depends. In fact the WV Supreme Court of Appeals recently addressed the compensability of an inmate workers' comp claim for a work release inmate who was performing work for a state agency when he was injured. The case is Crawford v. West Virginia Department of Corrections.

No Workers' Comp for Inmate Injured Working for State Agency in WV

The case involved then-inmate William Crawford, who worked out of a Charleston work release center. He was assigned to a WV Division of Highways (DOH) road crew when he was injured.

Wood Chipper Injury Leads to Inmate Workers' Comp Claim

Mr. Crawford applied for and was accepted into a work release center in Charleston, WV. His contract provided that he "could be returned to his parent institution at any time." Mr. Crawford was ultimately assigned to a WV Division of Corrections (DOC) road crew, which performed work for the DOH.

Upon receiving this assignment, Mr. Crawford had to sign a DOC document that contained the following provisions:

  • The DOH had "no authority to excuse an inmate Road Crewmember from work."
  • Absent parole or discharge, inmate crew members could not leave their assigned crews until replaced and until permission was given.
  • The DOC could terminate an inmate's assignment . . . or reassign" him or her at the DOC's discretion.

The agreement between the DOC and the DOH required the DOC to make road crews available. In exchange, the DOH agreed to reimburse the DOC for inmate worker wages. However, the agreement specifically provided that the inmate workers were not State employees and that they were not entitled to workers' comp if injured on the job.

While working on his assigned road crew, Mr. Crawford's hand became stuck inside a wood chipper. His injuries were extensive and required over $90,000 worth of surgery and hospitalization. The DOC paid these costs.

Despite the payment of his medical bills, Mr. Crawford filed a claim for workers' comp. His claim was denied at every level before it reached the state supreme court.

After Denial of Inmate Workers' Comp Claim, Worker Appeals

Undeterred by his lower-level losses, Mr. Crawford appealed to the WV Supreme Court of Appeals. He claimed that he was entitled to recover on his inmate workers' comp claim and that denying his claim denied him equal protection of the laws.

WV Workers' Comp Statute Does Not Cover Work Release Inmates Assigned to State Employers

The compensability of WV work release inmate workers' comp claims is governed by W. Va. Code § 23-4-1e(b), which provides as follows:

Notwithstanding any provision of this code to the contrary, no person confined in a state correctional facility or jail who suffers injury or a disease in the course of and resulting from his or her work during the period of confinement which work is imposed by the administration of the state correctional facility or jail and is not suffered during the person's usual employment with his or her usual employer when not confined shall receive benefits under the provisions of this chapter for the injury or diseas[e].

The parties to the case argued that this law was unambiguous, but they disagreed about its meaning. Mr. Crawford argued that his road crew work was voluntary and that his claim was therefore not excluded by the law. The DOC, on the other hand, contended that after an "inmate [wa] s accepted into the program," the work was required, thus bringing it within the exclusionary framework of the law.

The Court found that W. Va. Code § 23-4-1e(b) was unambiguous and barred a claimant from receiving any workers' compensation benefits for injuries sustained while participating in a work release program where such work was imposed as a term of his or her incarceration.

More specifically, the Court found that when any person (1) who was confined in a "state correctional facility or jail," (2) who was injured while working during such confinement, i.e. on work-release, and (3) in circumstances where the work was imposed upon the inmate by the correctional facility, that person was not eligible to receive workers' compensation benefits for any injury that occurred while the inmate was working.

However, the Court also explained that the statute did state that if the person's injury occurred during his or her usual employment with his or her usual employer, that person was eligible to file a claim and receive benefits.

No Equal Protection Violation Occurred by Denying Work Release Inmate's Workers' Comp Claim

Mr. Crawford also asserted that the rejection of his workers' comp claim under W. Va. Code § 23-4-1e subjected him to an equal protection violation under both the federal and state constitutions. The court quickly disposed of this claim, finding the statute constitutional despite various challenges raised by the claimant.

In short, the Court found no "disadvantageous treatment of inmates who . . . work[ed] for a state agency," even assuming that those working for private employers were covered by workers' compensation. In both instances, the inmates' injuries were treated at no cost to them. In fact, the DOC had paid for Mr. Crawford's surgeries and hospitalization.

However, the Court limited its holding to those injuries sustained by persons working on work release for a state agency. The Court did not consider whether a person could have a compensable claim if working for a private sector employer, but the clear inference and the seemingly plain language of the statute strongly imply that such claims are not barred.

The Implications of Crawford for Future Work Release Inmate Workers' Comp Claims

The Crawford decision only bars workers' compensation claims made by inmates injured on work release while working for a state agency. As a practical matter, private sector employers in West Virginia infrequently hire incarcerated individuals in work release programs. As a result, the Crawford exception probably has limited applicability. The decision represents a significant win for state agencies, however.

In addition, it is important not to confuse the holding in Crawford with the effect of W. Va. Code § 23-4-1e(a). This law holds that if a claimant has a compensable injury, then is later confined to a state correctional facility or jail, he or she is not eligible for temporary total disability (TTD) benefits for the period of confinement. Other benefits, such as medical expenses, remain payable.

This TTD issue comes up much more frequently for private employers. As a result, when your employee (or your insured's employee) is jailed for a subsequent and unrelated reason while drawing TTD benefits, you should still suspend TTD benefits for the period of confinement.

In summary, under W. Va. Code § 23-4-1e and the Crawford decision, there are three rules to remember:

  • If a claimant is injured on work release while working for a state agency, the claimant is not eligible for any workers' compensation benefits;
  • If a claimant is injured on work release while working for his or her usual employer and in his or her usual employment, the claimant is eligible for workers' compensation benefits (just like any other claimant).
  • If a claimant is injured and then later confined to a state correctional facility or jail, the claimant is not eligible for temporary total disability benefits during the period of confinement.

If you have questions about how inmate workers' comp claims should be handled under WV law, please contact me, Steven K. Wellman, attorney at Jenkins Fenstermaker, PLLC. Our attorneys have decades of experience advising and representing West Virginia employers and carriers in workers' comp claims. You may reach us by calling (866) 617-4736 or by completing our Contact form.

This article should be considered advertising material, Steven K. Wellman, responsible attorney. This article is being provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice pertaining to any particular situation or circumstance.

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