Jonathan Adler beat me to talking about this Ohio Supreme Court case, but I think it presents an interesting example of “hard facts make bad law”—and, in this case, the plaintiff, an especially undeserving fellow, should have won, but didn’t.
David Gross, a teenager, was a callow sort who worked for the local KFC. Among his duties was cleaning out the pressure cooker, but Gross repeatedly ignored explicit instructions not to use water in cleaning it. This was no arbitrary command, for in November 2003, Gross did just that, and the cooker exploded, burning Gross and two co-workers. The franchise investigated and fired Gross in February 2004 for the safety violation, and sought to end their workers’ comp payments to Gross. Their theory: the egregious safety violation was a voluntary abandonment of employment. The administrative agency agreed, the court of appeals reversed, and the Ohio Supreme Court restored the original decision that the franchise didn’t have to pay workers’ comp after it fired Gross.
A Volokh commenter suggests that the fact that the franchise waited to fire Gross means that they’re on the hook. That seems like the wrong rule: it would punish the franchise for taking additional steps to ensure that it was acting fairly to its employees by investigating the incident before firing someone.
That said, it’s wrong to treat the firing, even the for-cause firing, as a “voluntary abandonment.” Workers’ comp is a no-fault regime. Raising the question of fault, even when the fault is as egregious as Gross’s here, inserts a complicating factor into the system. There’s a certain unfairness to assessing liability against the franchise: they told Gross not to do something dangerous on multiple occasions, he did it anyway, and Gross gets to recover. But the alternative is to create an ambiguous rule that gives other employers the incentive to turn workers’ comp hearings into a question of whether a worker’s negligence was really recklessness or intentional disregard for safety rules. One reduces Type I errors, while increasing Type II errors, and substantially decreasing administrative efficiency: straightforward proceedings now have uncertainty, raising expenses for everyone. Perhaps Gross should be criminally prosecuted for reckless endangerment; perhaps a penalty of a criminal conviction should include restitution to the employer. But in the civil proceeding, the legislature made a conscious decision of the tradeoffs here, and it’s not for the courts to decide that those tradeoffs should be recalibrated in individual cases.
Note that valuing efficiency here favors plaintiffs, rather than defendants, putting the lie to the argument of anti-reformers that reformers hide behind efficiency to mask a pro-defendant bias. This reformer favors efficiency because it makes all of us better off in the long run. Efficiency isn’t the only value—a society can rationally choose inefficient procedures because it believes the protected values are worth the additional cost—but the public policy debate shouldn’t ignore the questions of costs and benefits and act as if results can be achieved for free.