VA Paramedic's Death Ruled Outside Workers' Comp Coverage

February 12, 2008 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The family of a dead Virginia paramedic killed in a freak defibrillator accident won the right to pursue its civil suit over the death when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled the family was not limited to seeking a workers' compensation award.

Senior Justice Charles S. Russell, in writing for the court, said Russell County Circuit Judge Michael L. Moore was wrong when he ruled that Courtney Hilton Rhoton’s accident “arose out of” her paramedic duties. Because of that finding, Moore declared that Rhoton’s family was restricted to Virginia’s workers’ compensation system in seeking a damage award.

The accident that eventually claimed Rhoton’s life occurred in June 2005 when she was riding in an ambulance with a co-worker who, according to the ruling, turned on the defibrillator and touched Rhoton with the live defibrillator paddles. Rhoton screamed and started to have a seizure; she died three days later.

According to the Supreme Court decision, her father filed a civil suit over the death against the paramedic and the company. The defendants asserted that Fred Hilton’s sole legal outlet was the workers’ compensation system because his daughter’s death came during her work, and Moore agreed.

However, Russell, noting that Virginia law says an “injury” falls within the scope of the workers’ compensation system only if it results from an “accident” and arises out of and in the course of the injured person’s employment, asserted that the facts of Rhoton’s death indicate that the incident does not qualify as a workers’ compensation-covered injury.

“The evidence in the present case clearly establishes that (the second paramedic’s) assault had no relationship with Courtney’s status as an employee,” Russell wrote. “Whether intended as flirtatious, merely playful, or as harassment, it was purely personal. Further, the employer’s workplace requirements had no causal connection with the risk of injury by assault. (The second paramedic’s) decision to use the employer’s equipment in assaulting a fellow employee was entirely his own and unconnected with the conditions of the employment. Therefore, the injury resulting from the assault did not arise out of the employment.”

The ruling in Hilton v. Martin, Va., No. 070091 (Jan. 11, 2007) is here.

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