Ohio Supreme Court Reverses Ruling: Injured Worker Gets Benefits Afterall

October 3, 2007

The Ohio Supreme Court, taking a second look at its own ruling, decided that a young fast-food worker who badly burned himself after violating safety rules should get temporary disability benefits.

Some attorneys had voiced alarm about the court’s earlier workers’ compensation ruling in the case, last December, saying it set a dangerous precedent by denying benefits because the employee was to blame for the accident. David Gross, then 16, was injured in 2003 after cleaning a pressure cooker by boiling water in it at the KFC franchise chicken restaurant where he worked in the Dayton area.

His disability compensation was stopped after he was fired three months following the accident. State claims authorities agreed with the KFC franchise that Gross in effect voluntarily gave up his job by willfully disobeying KFC safety rules.

The earlier Supreme Court opinion found that Gross “was fired because he directly and deliberately disobeyed repeated written and verbal instructions not to boil water in the pressurized deep fryer and injuries followed.” Two co-workers who had warned Gross to stop were also burned by scalding water spraying from the cooker, according to court records.

Critics said the court’s original ruling was at odds with “no-fault” principles for compensating workers injured on the job.

In what the court acknowledged was an unusual decision to reconsider one of its opinions, the justices ruled 5-2 in late September that Gross should have continued receiving temporary disability payments because his firing was linked to his workplace injury.

“Although KFC appears justified in firing Gross for violating workplace rules, the termination letter established that his discharge was related to his industrial injury,” stated the opinion, adding that his job loss was involuntary.

The earlier ruling wasn’t intended to set a new standard on what’s called “voluntary abandonment” of employment, stated the majority opinion, written by Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton.

Justices Maureen O’Connor and Judith Ann Lanzinger dissented sharply.

“I am left with the firm belief that we are not reconsidering our case as much as we are simply retreating from it in the face of public criticism,” O’Connor wrote.

Gross’ attorney, Gary Plunkett, said the new ruling is a relief to attorneys who were worried about the earlier decision’s potential implications for many workers injured on the job in Ohio.

“We all felt the balance of the workers’ compensation system was at risk with this case. It was being taken very seriously,” Plunkett said.

The attorney for Food Folks & Fun Inc., the franchise that operated the KFC restaurant, said the new result was a disappointment but also was a narrow ruling.

“We’re also pleased that the majority limited its opinion to the very narrow and unique facts of Mr. Gross’ case,” attorney Robert Corker said.

Louisville, Ky.-based KFC is a subsidiary of Yum Brands Inc.

Gross, now 20, didn’t return a message for comment. His mother, Angelia Dussia, said Gross now does home-improvement work. She said he was hospitalized for 10 days after the accident and was unable to work for about six months.

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