WV Workers' Comp Ruling Gains National Attention

16 Jun, 2017 Angela Underwood


Charleston, WV (WorkersCompensation.com) – A Supreme Court ruling recently denied an inmate workers’ compensation for an injury he sustained participating in state-mandated labor. It has been a hot topic in the industry this week.

The Associated Press (AP) was one of the news outlets who reported on the story, about former inmate William Crawford’s hand injury. The accident caused two of his fingers to be partially amputated and almost $100,000 in medical bills. The matter has come up in Google Top News and email Alerts for the week, with a few field experts sharing their opinion on Justice Robin Davis’s ruling.

John Skaggs, the inmate’s counsel with The Calwell Practice, LC, out of Charleston, has input on the situation. In an exclusive interview with the former inmate’s attorney, Skaggs explained his client is cut off from any workers’ compensation benefits.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) paid Crawford’s bills for his stay and surgery after a chipper nearly cut off his hand. The machine had failed four times that day. “There will not be an appeal because this is our court of last resort,” Skaggs said. He also added, “lack of treatment has put him at a significant disadvantage in re-entering society. “In looking at (it), it caught four times the same day so it really was a management issue.”

Lawrence Messina, Director of Communications for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said in an email to WorkersCompensation.com, “The Division of Corrections believes that its pleadings in this case speak for themselves.”

Messina referred WorkersCompensation.com to the brief in the case. “Workers' Compensation benefits are not available for any person confined in a state correctional facility when the work completed by the individual is imposed by the administration of the facility pursuant to West Virginia Code §23-4-1e. “As this section clearly covers the facts of this claim, Petitioner's appeal must be denied,” according to the brief.

Crawford’s brief argued since the inmate was doing labor for the Division of Highways, “a public entity (is) a part of his agreement for transfer to the Charleston Work Release Center.”

Though the story was covered by one of the top worldwide news agencies, the AP didn’t discuss the background of Crawford. His case circumstance is an important factor to consider, according to Skaggs. Crawford was charged with one count of delivering a controlled substance, a problem Skaggs said is nationwide.

“It’s not just in West Virginia, it’s (pain medication abuse) all over the country. You are putting more and more people, of all ages and backgrounds, with opioid problems in the system, (and) having them go out here on a highway with heavy equipment and operating machinery around speeding vehicles. It is inevitable there is going to be a problem, and it only makes sense that they should have basic coverage,” Skaggs said.

Miami Jewish Health Director of Physician Services Marynell Lubiniski said whether it is in inmate or injured worker, the underlying conditions of claimants involves suffering from pain medication addiction.

“Virtually all of these people started getting these opioids because they had an injury or surgery,” Lubiniski said. The director reported most clients in the facility are “work comp and catastrophic work comp,” related. “It is our primary focus,” she said of the several week-intensive therapy program in Florida. “We are known for tapering patients off narcotics, we are not interventional pain management.”

She said rather than address the addiction, address where it is coming from. “We have to help people find other ways to treat that condition or to deal with the pain other than narcotics. And I have not heard that in all the conversations,” she said.

Skaggs argued that along with ill-fated circumstances of addiction issues, his client’s equal protection rights were violated. “Our Supreme Court under our statute said it wasn’t a violation of his equal protection, and only the legislature can do that (develop a law). And of course, (as) the legislator, they are not about to address this kind of issue,” Skaggs said.

Only law can change that fact, said Sacramento, CA-based counsel Jennifer A. Eason, a senior workers’ compensation trial attorney. “Weighing the considerations that the court faced in the West Virginia case, I do not see an alternative decision. I do think that the underlying laws pertaining to inmate rights could be changed by the legislature,” Eason said.

She also said the denial doesn’t disturb equal protection due to the fact that Crawford was performing labor under a work-release program, a voluntary process offered in lieu of jail time.

Citing several cases, Eason said an “equal protection claim may be established by proving that a defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff where ‘similarly situated’ persons were intentionally treated differently, without a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose.”

“A claim may also be shown by demonstrating that a defendant intentionally discriminated against a plaintiff based on the plaintiff's membership in a ‘protected’ or ‘suspect’ class. Unfortunately, prisoners, as a group, do not constitute a suspect class,” she added.

The fact that Crawford’s hand was maimed for life and he will receive no compensation is not new news. Maxwell University Political Science/Ph.D. student Colleen Dougherty-Burton authored “The Cruel and Unusual Irony of Prisoner Work Related Injuries in the United States,” describing similar cases to Crawford.

Her paper opens with stories of lost fingers, broken wrists and severe burns prisoners suffered handling defective machinery. “As the law currently stands, it is unclear whether state or federal prisoners who are injured by defective working equipment in prison factories can seek relief by bringing an Eighth Amendment action claiming cruel and unusual punishment,” writes Burton- Dougherty.

Eason weighs in.

“This is a very stringent test, and covers most claims advanced by prisoners. In this West Virginia case, the inmate, Crawford, stated that his equal protection rights had been violated, arguing that inmates working for private businesses would receive the benefits, while inmates working for a state agency would not,” she said.

Eason also added that workers’ compensation laws vary state-by-state, but the individual state law cannot violate the Equal Protection Clause set forth in the Fourteenth Amendment.

“In California, inmates will encounter the same issues in establishing a violation of the Equal protection clause because the California courts have also ruled that categorization of incarcerated convicts from other members of society does not create a suspect classification invoking the strict scrutiny doctrine,” Eason said. “Rather, the rational relationship test is applied in determining equal protection challenges to prisoner classification for purposes of governmental liability for injury. The same test has been applied in determining equal protection challenges to benefit classifications under Workers Compensation Act.”

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    • Angela Underwood

      Author Angela Underwood has worked as a reporter, feature writer and editor for more than a decade. Her prior roles as Municipal Beat Correspondent with Gannett and Public Information Officer for Toms Rivers government in New Jersey have given her experience on both sides of the political and media fences, making her passionate about policy and the public’s right-to-know.

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