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New Life for Georgia’s Willful Misconduct Defense: Supreme Court Reverses Court of Appeals Decision in Chandler Telecom, LLC v. Burdette

Written by: Brian Mallow, Esq.

In a major victory for employers/insurers, the Georgia Supreme Court today reversed a Court of Appeals decision that significantly limited the application of the “willful misconduct” defense in Georgia workers’ compensation cases. The case involved a cell tower technician, Adrian Burdette, who was seriously injured while attempting a controlled descent (similar to repelling) from a cell tower. Prior to beginning his shift, Burdette’s supervisor instructed the entire work crew to climb down the tower and not to use the controlled descent method. Then at the end of the shift, the crew’s team leader explicitly instructed Burdette multiple times to climb down the tower, but Burdette refused and insisted that he would use the controlled descent method instead. Shortly after Burdette began his controlled descent, he fell and sustained serious injuries.

Burdette filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. A hearing was held before an ALJ, who denied Burdette’s claim, finding that he had engaged in “willful misconduct” within the meaning of O.C.G.A. § 34-9-17(a), which provides:

No compensation shall be allowed for an injury or death due to the employee’s willful misconduct, including intentionally self-inflicted injury, or growing out of his or her attempt to injure another, or for the willful failure to use a safety appliance or perform a duty required by statute.

Burdette appealed the ALJ’s award to the full Board, which affirmed and adopted the ALJ’s findings. The superior court affirmed by operation of law, and Burdette filed an application for discretionary appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which surprisingly reversed the Board’s decision. The Court of Appeals found that Burdette’s intentional violation of his employer’s explicit instructions did not qualify as “willful misconduct,” because although Burdette engaged in a hazardous act where the danger was obvious, his conduct was not of a “quasi-criminal” nature.

In reversing the Court of Appeals’ decision, the Supreme Court cautioned that not every violation of an employer’s rules will bar compensation. But where an employee intentionally violates his employer’s rules or instructions with “either the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences” and is injured as a result of that disobedient act, he will be barred from compensation under O.C.G.A. § 34-9-17(a). Because the Board had not made explicit findings on this particular point, the case was remanded to consider the issue and make appropriate factual findings.