O’Donoghue v. United Continental Holdings Inc. (P)

The Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission properly denied benefits to a Dulles Airport employee who was electrocuted at work.

Here, evidence was that, as the claimant put his finger on a plane’s toggle switch, he saw a blue arc come out of the plane’s panel box and felt it course through his body. The employer defended the claim on the ground that the cause of the injuries was either unexplained or an act of God (lightning in this case) and, consequently, was not compensable.

Although possible causes of electrocution in this case other than lightning, such as a discharge of static electricity from the airplane or an electrical malfunction, would constitute compensable actual risks of the claimant’s employment, the appellant didn’t exclude lightning as a possible cause of his injuries. Critically, on this record, Virginia’s controlling case law specifically involving lightning strikes compels the conclusion that the Commission did not err in refusing to award benefits.

The Commission was also entitled to draw reasonable inferences from the evidence regarding the weather alert system. One such inference is that the claimant could have been hit by an initial lightning strike that was then detected by the system, triggering the ramp closure that occurred soon after the claimant was hit. Additionally, the response system might have detected lightning in the area, and the claimant might still have been struck by lightning after the detection but before notification of the alert reached the ramp on which the claimant was working. Consequently, the evidence in the record doesn’t disprove as a matter of law the theory that the claimant was injured by a lightning strike rather than by an electrocution wholly unrelated to lightning.

Affirmed. Judge Huff dissented.

O’Donoghue v. United Continental Holdings Inc. (P), No. 1149-18-4, Mar. 26, 2019. CAV (Decker) from Va. WCC.

Categories: Court of Appeals of Virginia, Opinions, Published

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