Georgia woman wins workers’ compensation benefits on appeal

In a grim turn of events, a Georgia woman lost a foot as the result of a 2010 work-related accident. Initially, the administrative law judge (ALJ) over her case granted workers’ compensation benefits. Upon review, the State Board of Workers’ Compensation reversed the ALJ’s decision and took away the previously-granted benefits.

Vanessa Stokes, a former head custodian at an elementary school, then appealed to the Superior Court of Coweta County; they upheld the board’s reversal. However, Stokes applied for and was granted a discretionary appeal with the Georgia Court of Appeals. She sought reinstatement of the original award of benefits.

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The details of this case are pretty unique and interesting. In early May of 2010, Stokes arrived to open up the school grounds as was dictated by her job. It was 5:45 a.m., dark outside and a heavy rain was falling. As Stokes tells it, she pulled her car very close to the school’s gates so as to aim her headlights at the lock. While she was outside her car unlocking the gates, her car began rolling downhill backwards.

Instinctively, Stokes ran toward the car so as to stop it, but tripped and fell after just a few steps. It was then that the car rolled over her left foot; a few days later the foot had to be amputated. According to Stokes, she was trying to stop the car so as to ensure that no damage occurred to school property or her car. As it turned out, the car stopped in a wooded area, still on school property.

After the ALJ awarded benefits,the State Board of Workers’ Compensation overturned his decision based on their decision that the accident didn’t arise out of Vanessa Stokes’ employment. This is because they saw that within the scope of her job, her duties were to open the gate, unlock the building, and perform tasks of a janitorial nature. According to the Board, “going after a moving vehicle” was not part of her job and doing so “undertook a personal mission, in pursuit of [her] personal property, not connected to her duties with the [e]mployer.” They also found that she didn’t try to stop the vehicle for reasons of preventing injury to anyone or damage to her employer’s property.

Essentially, they decided that she was deviating from her job at hand and, as such, was deprived compensation. Stokes appealed the case and was shot down by the Superior Court. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the upholding of the reversal and overturned it, saying,
“Under the circumstances presented, we conclude that the Board’s decision was based upon an erroneous theory regarding what conduct constitutes a deviation from employment that will bar compensation under the [Workers’ Compensation] Act. It is undisputed that, at the instant Stokes’ car began to roll, she was on duty (not on break); she was physically located precisely where her job duties required her to be at that time, that is, at the driveway gate; and, she was unlocking the gate, a task required by her job duties and of benefit to the employer. Indeed, but for the necessity that she stop her car on the sloped driveway and exit the car to open the gate, the accident would not have occurred.”

So, as this case illustrates, your case isn’t over at an initial ‘no’. If you need help pursuing the workers’ compensation benefits you are entitled to, contact Moebes Law at our Atlanta law office at 404-354-5432.

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