Kirk Wilson had a short but eventful career working a commercial collection route in Missouri for Progressive Waste. From his start in June 2015, until the company fired him seven months later, he was involved in two driving mishaps.
In November 2015, while servicing a trash container, he hit a light pole. Reaching the customer later than usual, he knew that children had already arrived at a nearby day care facility. Wilson stated he was going about 10 miles per hour, cautiously watching to avoid hitting children but inadvertently striking the pole. The truck suffered $12,000 in damage. Progressive gave him a written warning.
About six weeks later, while approaching a container at an apartment complex, he sideswiped a concrete wall while trying to negotiate a tight space and avoid hitting a vehicle illegally parked in the accessway. The impact tore the lines off the air tank. A company mechanic was dispatched to the location and reattached the air lines. Later that day, Wilson's supervisor sent him home after assuring him he was not terminated. However, within a few days Progressive fired him for preventable accidents.
After his termination, Wilson applied for unemployment benefits. Progressive filed a written protest of his claim. The Missouri Division of Employment Security disqualified him from receiving unemployment benefits because his two accidents amounted to “misconduct.” Wilson appealed the determination to an appeals tribunal. The tribunal held a hearing and affirmed the decision, finding that "[t]he claimant's recurrent negligence was of such degree as to manifest culpability and constitute misconduct" because he struck stationary objects and the accidents occurred less than two months apart. Wilson further appealed to the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, which agreed with the tribunal.
During these proceedings, Wilson stated that although he received an employee handbook, he was unaware of any policies regarding Progressive’s accident and disciplinary procedures. If such policies did exist, the company surprisingly made no effort to present them in the proceedings. The record did include a copy of the employee handbook, which lists some company policies, but nothing about discipline for accidents.
The Missouri Constitution guarantees the right of judicial review of administrative decisions affecting the substantive rights of individuals. Wilson’s appeal brought his case to the state intermediate level appellate court where he argued that the facts did not support the conclusion that he engaged in misconduct. Finding that the commission mistakenly concluded that Wilson’s actions amounted to misconduct, the court reversed the decision and sent the case back to the commission with a directive to award Wilson unemployment benefits.
Under Missouri law, which is similar to the law in many states, unemployment benefits are available to workers who have lost their job through no fault of their own and who meet the program’s eligibility requirements. Proving entitlement to benefits is straightforward unless the former employer claims that the applicant was discharged for misconduct, which, if proved, will disqualify a claimant. The state law definition of “misconduct” includes work-related acts or omissions “demonstrating carelessness or negligence in such degree or recurrence as to manifest culpability, wrongful intent, or a knowing disregard of the employer's interest or of the employee's duties and obligations to the employer.” Mo. Rev. Stat. § 288.030.1(23)
No one disputed that Wilson had two work-connected accidents where he was careless. Although acknowledging that Progressive was justified in firing Wilson, the appeals court noted that even though an employer has valid grounds for termination, the employee may still qualify for compensation. For the commission to deny benefits, Progressive was required to satisfy the statutory standard.
Missouri courts have consistently held that simple acts of negligence, accidents and mistakes, bad judgment, or poor workmanship do not constitute disqualifying misconduct. For example, benefits were not denied where a claimant had struck a parked bus because the sun's reflection prevented him from seeing the bus's brake lights and the road conditions were poor or where a claimant had misjudged the clearance for a truck to pass under a bridge.
Progressive argued that Wilson's accidents demonstrated misconduct because he struck stationary objects both times even though he previously picked up trash containers at the locations without a problem and was capable of operating the vehicle. The appeals court was unpersuaded.
“There is no bright-line test for what qualifies as misconduct under Missouri law,” said the panel. “Thus, the proper analysis for determining whether an accident caused by an employee in a company vehicle constitutes misconduct requires a thorough review of the totality of the facts and circumstances of the incident as well as the context in which the incident occurred."
Using this big-picture analysis, the appeals court found that the two accidents did not amount to misconduct. With regard to the first, “Wilson, although he previously collected trash containers at the location, was driving through the parking lot later than normal ... knew there
were children attending a day care in the area,” the court noted. “Driving cautiously to avoid hitting children, [he] inadvertently hit the light pole.” As for the second, “Wilson was carefully navigating the tight enclosure when he swiped the wall. It was raining, there was an improperly parked vehicle in the route, and there was no one to help Wilson through the narrow space in order to avoid hitting the vehicle,” the opinion continued.
Viewing the whole record, the appeals court declined to find Wilson’s conduct amounted to culpable negligence. On the contrary, it found he was driving the vehicle cautiously on both occasions not only to properly collect the trash containers but also to ensure the safety of children and to avoid hitting the improperly parked vehicle. “Wilson demonstrated simple negligence when he hit the light pole and misjudged the distance when he swiped the wall,” the opinion stated. “Therefore, we find Wilson's acts of mere negligence and poor judgment do not rise to the level of culpability required to constitute disqualifying misconduct.”
Wilson v. Progressive Waste Solutions of MO, Inc., No. ED104512, Mo. Ct. App., Jan. 24, 2017.
Barry Shanoff is a Bethesda, Md., attorney and general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.