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Chandler Telecom, LLC v. Burdette

Supreme Court of Georgia

February 27, 2017


          PETERSON, Justice.

         This case presents the question of whether an employee may - in deliberate disobedience of his employer's explicit prohibition - act in a knowingly dangerous fashion with disregard for the probable consequences of that act, and still recover workers' compensation when injured by that disobedient act. We conclude that OCGA § 34-9-17 (a), as we have interpreted it for nearly a century, may bar recovery in such cases.

         Adrian Burdette was seriously injured when he fell while attempting a controlled descent from a cell-phone tower in contravention of instructions by his employer, Chandler Telecom, LLC ("Chandler"), that technicians must climb down from towers. The State Board of Workers' Compensation (the "Board") adopted an administrative law judge's findings and concluded that Burdette was barred from receiving compensation because he engaged in "willful misconduct" within the meaning of OCGA § 34-9-17 (a). Burdette appealed to the superior court, which affirmed the Board's decision by operation of law. Burdette then appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that Burdette's actions did not constitute "willful misconduct" as we defined that term nearly a century ago in Aetna Life Insurance Co. v. Carroll, 169 Ga. 333 (150 SE 208) (1929) ("Carroll"). Burdette v. Chandler Telecom, LLC, 335 Ga.App. 190 (779 S.E.2d 75) (2015). We granted certiorari to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred in its interpretation and application of Carroll. Because we conclude that the Court of Appeals misapplied Carroll and improperly made its own findings, we reverse; because the Board's limited findings preclude meaningful review of whether the Board properly applied Carroll, we remand.

         As set forth in the Court of Appeals opinion, the record in this case, when viewed in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, shows as follows:

Burdette was initially employed by Chandler as a cell-tower technician on September 1, 2012, and he worked there for three weeks before taking a five-week leave of absence. Burdette was terminated during his leave of absence due to a miscommunication with his supervisor, but he was then rehired on November 2, 2012. During Burdette's leave of absence, Chandler required all of its cell-tower technicians to [be] ComTrain certified.[1] Upon his return, Burdette was asked if he was ComTrain certified, and he lied and said that he had this certification.
On November 5, 2012, Burdette's first day back at work, he was assigned to work on the top of a cell tower with Brian Prejean, who was the "lead tower hand" of the crew. And prior to their shift that day, the supervisor over Burdette's six-person crew instructed them to climb down the towers and not to use controlled descent. Prejean and Burdette then worked together on the same cell tower from around 8:00 a.m. until 3:30 or 4:00 p.m. When their work was almost complete, Prejean instructed Burdette to climb down the tower, but Burdette responded that he wanted to use controlled descent instead.
Prejean's account of his conversation with Burdette just before Burdette's descent (and fall) is as follows:
I told him no, man, just climb down. Might as well just climb down. . . . [W]e don't have a safety rope up here for you to grab. He told me he had done this so many times. I was like, dude, they're going to be mad if you do it. [Our supervisor] will be mad if you do it and, . . . you might not have a job or you might, you know, have to deal with the consequences if you don't listen . . . .
Nevertheless, even after Prejean instructed Burdette to climb down the tower two or three more times, Burdette prepared his equipment and began controlled descent. Shortly thereafter, Burdette fell a great distance from the tower and landed on an "ice bridge, " which caused serious injuries to his ankle, leg, and hip. Burdette has no memory of his fall or anything that happened immediately before or after it, including his conversation with Prejean. Prejean testified that Burdette's fall was the result of "user error, " rather than any equipment malfunction. He further noted that, while Burdette had the required equipment for climbing down, he did not have all of the necessary equipment for controlled descent.

335 Ga.App. at 191-92.

         In reversing the Board's decision, the Court of Appeals concluded that Burdette's intentional violation of an employer rule and other explicit instructions was not "willful misconduct" under OCGA § 34-9-17 (a). It arrived at this conclusion, citing Carroll, because Burdette's violation was not of a "quasi criminal nature involving the intentional doing of something either with the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences." Burdette, 335 Ga.App. at 195 (2) (footnote and punctuation omitted).

         1. Statutory Framework

          (a) Statutory Text

         The Georgia Workmens' Compensation Act ("the Act") was enacted in 1920. Ga. L. 1920, p. 167. At the time, section ...

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