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Employees allege willful misconduct after fatal mower accident

In our previous post, we discussed how to keep landscaping employees safe in order to minimize unnecessary injuries and costly workers' compensation claims. One of the items we discussed was the importance of ensuring that all workers who use or heavy equipment receive appropriate training and supervision.

Even when all safety precautions are taken, accidents can still happen, of course. If, after an accident, other employees allege that the employer engaged in willful misconduct, however, the result can be a substantial increase in cost to the organization.

This may have been what happened in a recent case in Nebraska. In the summer of 2010, a municipal employee was operating a 1,200 pound lawnmower over a steep ditch, and the mower suddenly overturned and rolled down the embankment, trapping the worker underneath. Tragically, he died as a result of the injuries he sustained in the accident.

The city immediately stepped up to pay $82,000 for medical bills related to the accident, along with $6,000 for his funeral. In addition, the surviving wife and daughter of the worker were paid $40,000 in bi-weekly workers' compensation survivor benefits.

Although those benefits may seem generous, they pale in comparison to the settlement a workers' compensation judge approved recently: The city now has to pay an additional $265,000 and $55,000 in lump sums to the wife and daughter.

According to press reports, 11 members of the Public Association of Government Employees filed a grievance against four of the city's public works managers, accusing them of willful misconduct in failing to train the deceased man on the particular mower, of continuing to have workers operate the mower despite knowing it was dangerous, and of humiliating and retaliating against employees who raised safety concerns.

After nearly two years, both internal and external investigations have failed to decisively determine whether the public works department provided the worker with appropriate training or whether he was assigned to use the mower in such a dangerous area. If it could be shown that he acted outside the scope of his position, the city might not have been held liable.

Unfortunately, the department, now under new management, apparently failed to keep crucial records that might have shown exactly when and how the employee was trained, what assignments he was given, and whether any safety complaints had been received. Without convincing proof, the natural sympathy toward the worker may simply have been overwhelming.

Even the most genial and well-meaning employer cannot afford to leave such things to chance. In addition to following good safety practices overall, it is essential to keep records that you have done so.

Source: Lincoln Journal Star, "Settlements reached in city mower death," June 5, 2012

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