Workers’ compensation law is founded on a compromise where employees give up the right to sue their employers for negligence in order to receive relatively certain benefits. What plaintiff’s lawyers like me don’t often say is that workers can generally collect benefits if they share some – or even all of the blame – for a work injury.
But the idea of fault has not been entirely erased from workers’ compensation law. Our colleagues at The Jernigan Law Firm in North Carolina recently discussed in a blog post how employer violations of safety rules could lead to increases in benefits, while employee violation of safety laws could lead to decreases in benefits.
Nebraska does not increase or decrease benefits based on safety-rule violations like North Carolina, but Nebraska does allow employers to avoid paying benefits if they can prove a worker’s willful negligence or intoxication was the cause of the work injury. This is a difficult burden for an employer to meet, but employees can still lose cases based upon willful negligence.
If an employer is going to claim a worker was willfully negligent because of a safety violation, a court will consider five factors as to whether an employee was willfully negligent. These factors are
- whether the employer had a reasonable rule designed to protect the safety and health of the employee
- whether the employee was on notice of the rule
- whether the employee understood the danger involved by violating the rule
- whether the rule was kept alive by bona fide enforcement and
- whether the employee had an excuse for the rule violation.
Whether an employee willfully violated a safety rule is a question of fact that depends on the circumstances and the credibility of the parties testifying in a case.
Nebraska law holds that ordinary negligence by a worker is not a bar to benefits. But an employer can delay benefits under the argument that but for the employee’s negligence, the employee’s injury could have been accommodated. That is an open question under Nebraska law. But if there is no question that an employee cannot work, and the worker is fired for negligence in connection with a work injury, the employer should still have to pay benefits.
Intoxication is often grouped with willful negligence under Nebraska law. It is very difficult for an employer to deny benefits based on intoxication causing the work accident. Another issue related to intoxication is when an employee tests positive for drugs after a work accident even if there is no evidence of intoxication at the time of the injury. A positive drug test will not bar an employee from receiving workers’ compensation benefits in Nebraska, but it could delay lost time or temporary disability benefits if an employer argues that temporary restrictions could be accommodated but for the employee’s termination for cause.
If an employee is not at fault for an injury, there may be other ways for an employee to be compensated. If an injury is caused by the negligence of a third party, the employee can sue that third party. If an employer retaliates against an employee for reporting an unsafe working condition that causes an injury, then the worker could pursue a retaliation case. Employees should also be skeptical if they are wrongfully blamed for a work accident, as this could be a form of retaliation. Another possible form of retaliation is when an employee is fired for having a work injury as a probationary employee or having too many injuries, regardless of fault.