Montana High Court Rules in Favor of Employees in Workers’ Comp Cases

January 7, 2008

The Montana Supreme Court has ruled in favor of two employees in recent workers’ compensation decisions, saying they are due insurance for injuries received while on break and at a company party.

In one case, a woman was injured during a car crash while on break time she took to care for her dog. In the other, a man was awarded benefits after a crash on a personal watercraft at a company picnic.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court agreed with a lower court that Maril BeVan’s injuries from a May 2005 car crash happened during the scope of her employment with Blackfoot Telephone Communications in Missoula.

Liberty Northwest Insurance Co. argued that the injuries took place during a personal errand, and should not be covered.

The Supreme Court said the company had enough control and authority over her breaks to consider it time at work.

In a decision from late last month, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Curtis Michalak, injured on a personal watercraft at a July 2005 company picnic on Flathead Lake. The watercraft was provided by his employer, Felco Industries of Missoula.

Michalak, who suffered severe injuries such as fractured vertebrae, was unable to return to work. A lower court agreed he should receive workers’ compensation benefits for the injuries.

Liberty Northwest Insurance fought this claim as well, and again argued the accident did not take place within the scope of employment. The company also said Michalak abandoned his employment by operating the craft in a reckless way.

The Workers’ Compensation Court found that Michalak had been put in charge of the rented craft by his employer and was hurt “during the performance of his duties.”

The Supreme Court unanimously agreed.

“We conclude that the WCC applied the correct analysis to determine whether Michalak’s injuries were compensable,” Justice William Leaphart wrote for the court.

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