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Workers’ Compensation

Virginia Supreme Court Affirms Denial of Workers’ Compensation Benefits to Construction Worker

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the denial of workers’ compensation benefits to a construction worker injured on the job while rehabbing a historic school building. The court ruled that the man was hired by an unlicensed contractor and was not an employee of the nonprofit organization that was renovating the building. According to the state supreme court brief, the Harvey School Historical Society was renovating the Harvey Colored School, a small school where African-American children were schooled from the 1880s to the mid-1900s in Pittsylvania County. It drafted a work agreement in 2012 with an unlicensed contractor to relocate and renovate the school.

In order to qualify for tax-exempt status, the historical society informally became an auxiliary of the Mount Lebanon Missionary Baptist Church. However, the church provided no financial support, did not exercise control, and maintained separate bank accounts from the historical society. The unlicensed contractor hired Charlie Jeffreys, who was badly injured when a beam fell from the roof of the school and struck him on the neck. He filed a workers’ compensation claim against the historical society, the church, and the woman overseeing the nonprofit organization. However, Jeffreys did not include the unlicensed contractor in his claim for benefits. Because neither the nonprofit organization or the church held workers’ compensation insurance, the state’s Uninsured Employer’s Fund was also named in the lawsuit.

In the initial review of the claim, the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission found that Jeffreys was a direct employee of the historical society as well as the woman in charge of the society, and the historical society was part of the church, which made Jeffreys an employee of them, as well. On appeal, the full commission disagreed in part, stating that the woman in charge of the nonprofit was not Jeffreys employer because she had no direct control over his work or how he performed it. However, his claim that he was an employee of the church was affirmed because no one appealed that part of the decision.

A state Court of Appeals also affirmed that the woman in charge of the nonprofit was not his employer, but it remanded the decision about the church to the lower court. Further court proceeding found that Jeffreys was not an employee of the church or the nonprofit because neither entity was a construction-related organization. The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed this ruling, finding that the Court of Appeals and Workers’ Compensation Commission were correct in finding that Jeffreys failed to prove that either the historical society nonprofit or the church were his statutory employers.

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