In State ex rel. Hildebrand v. Wingate Transp., Inc., the Ohio Supreme Court  recently ruled that an employee who quit his job for reasons unrelated to his work injury was barred from receiving temporary total disability compensation.

Brian Hildebrand, a mechanic with Wingate Transport, Inc. injured his back on June 3, 2009. On June 8, 2009, he sought chiropractic treatment and was diagnosed with a left sacroiliac joint sprain/strain. After seeking treatment, he returned to work the following day with a note from the chiropractor restricting him to modified duties.   Hildebrand spoke with the owner, Jeffrey Wingate, and confirmed he could perform light duty work. During the same conversation, Wingate asked Hildebrand to return a borrowed Jeep that Wingate had loaned him after his own vehicle had been wrecked during an accident. Hildebrand inquired whether his employment was being terminated. The incident escalated and ultimately the police were called to the premises. In cooperation with the police, Hildebrand left the worksite and never returned.

A week later, Hildebrand filed for unemployment benefits; however, the Department of Job and Family Services denied the request, finding he had quit his job for personal reasons without just cause.  He then filed for workers’ compensation benefits.   Wingate objected to the claim, arguing that Hildebrand had pre-existing low back injuries.

The Industrial Commission recognized Hildebrand’s claim for left sacroiliac sprain/strain but denied his request for temporary total disability compensation, finding that he had voluntarily quit his employment. Hildebrand filed a mandamus challenge to the Industrial Commission’s decision. The court of appeals denied Hildebrand’s request, finding that the evidence supported that he had quit his job for reasons unrelated to his work injury. Hildebrand in turn appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Temporary total disability compensation is intended to compensate an injured worker who is unable to return to work as a result of a workplace incident. The key determination is whether or not the work incident is the reason why the employee is unable to return to work. Under the abandonment doctrine, an employee who voluntarily leaves a position of employment is not entitled to receive temporary total disability compensation.

In this case, Hildebrand conceded that he quit his job for reasons unrelated to his work incident. He argued that he was not barred from receiving compensation because at the time he quit his job, he was under medical restrictions and not able to perform the duties of his job. He argued that his departure could not be considered voluntary since he was under work restrictions. His argument was based on the Supreme Court of Ohio’s 1996 decision in State ex. rel. Pretty Products v Industrial Comm’n, in which the Court held that an injured worker who was injured at the time they left their employment could not be found to have voluntarily abandoned their employment.

On the other hand, Wingate argued that Hildebrand ended his employment for reasons unrelated to his work incident and thus his departure from employment which caused him to lose wages was not causally related to his work incident. The Supreme Court agreed and found that because Hildebrand could not demonstrate that his loss of earnings was due to his work incident, he did not meet the requirement for receiving temporary total disability compensation. In this case, it was undisputed that Hildebrand quit his job following a disagreement with his employer over a vehicle. The disagreement had nothing to do with his injury or work incident. Hence, the Court found that his departure from the workplace was not causally related to his industrial injury and he was not entitled to receive temporary total disability benefits.

The Supreme Court distinguished the facts in Hildebrand’s situation from several other cases including Pretty Products in which employees were found to be entitled to temporary total disability benefits after their employment ended. The Court found the distinction to be significant between situations involving employees who had been discharged from employment while receiving temporary total disability compensation and cases similar to Hildebrand, who voluntarily quit his employment. Ultimately, the Court stated it would be illogical to grant Hildebrand compensation when he voluntarily left his job due to reasons not related to his work injury.

The voluntary abandonment doctrine remains a viable defense to injured workers’ requests for temporary total disability compensation when an employee’s own actions take them out of the workforce rather than their work injury. Generally speaking, however, employers should remain diligent in working with employees who have been injured on the job to help them return to work.