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WV high court rules work-release inmates don’t qualify for workers’ comp

By KAYLA ASBURY

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A man on a work-release crew whose hand was injured in a wood chipper is not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled last week.

In a unanimous decision, the court affirmed a Workers’ Compensation Board of Review’s 2015 decision to not grant William F. Crawford workers’ compensation. Inmates participating in work-release programs are not technically employees and do not qualify for the benefits, according to the Supreme Court decision filed Thursday.

Crawford appealed the workers’ compensation board’s decision to the Supreme Court, claiming state law does not clarify whether coverage was excluded for people on work-release.

Crawford also claimed his equal protection rights had been violated, arguing a work-release inmate working for a private business would receive workers’ compensation benefits, while one working for a state agency — as Crawford was working for the state Division of Highways — would not.

Crawford’s inability to receive benefits does not violate equal protection since Crawford was working through the work-release program at the DOH on a volunteer basis, the court ruled.

Crawford worked as part of the road crew for the DOH. He was employed by the Charleston Work Release Center, now called the Charleston Correctional Center, a facility where inmates live and work as they prepare to re-enter society following incarceration.

The Supreme Court decision affirmed Crawford is prohibited from receiving workers’ compensation benefits, clarifying inmates in work-release programs do not qualify.

On March 28, 2013, Crawford “severely injured” his left hand in a wood chipper, according to the Supreme Court. His ring and pinky fingers were partially amputated, according to the workers’ compensation board decision.

According to a state Division of Corrections incident report that same day, “The chipper had stopped up about four times that day. The chute door was open and the chipper was turned over slightly to let the debris out. While this was being done, the claimant put a stick into the chipper part of the machine. The chipper was off, but the blade was still slightly turning, and it jerked the stick, and the claimant did not let loose of it quick enough.”

Crawford had been told not to put his hand near the chipper while the blade was still moving, according to the report.

The injury required surgery and hospitalization. Shortly after his hospitalization, Crawford was released on parole.

His medical expenses exceeded $90,000 and were covered by the DOC.

Crawford was seeking workers’ compensation benefits for the injury, claiming a “lack of treatment has put him at a significant disadvantage in re-entering society,” court documents say.

The decision was unanimous. Justice Robin Davis wrote the decision.

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