Private businesses in West Virginia contracting inmates through the Prison Industry Enhancement (PIE) Certification Program are required to carry workers' compensation insurance to cover them for on-the-job injuries. Inmates injured while working for the private sector in one of these jobs can thus file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits. But compensation for an inmate’s injuries sustained while working for other types of organizations, including government entities, can be handled differently, according to a ruling in June by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

William Crawford, a former inmate at Charleston Work Release Center (CWRC), severely injured his hand in a wood chipper accident while providing labor on work release to the West Virginia Division of Highways (DOH). While Mr. Crawford had his medical bills, in excess of $90,000, paid by the CWRC, he also sought but was denied workers’ comp benefits by the Claims Administrator of the CWRC. When they denied his claim, he appealed his claim to the Office of Judges. When they upheld the denial, he sued the DOC, citing a violation of West Virginia’s workers’ compensation laws, in a case that was eventually decided in the state’s Supreme Court of Appeals.

In Crawford v. West Virginia Department of Corrections – Work Release  (2017), the former inmate alleged that West Virginia’s code section 23-4-1e(b) of the Workers’ Compensation Rules of the West Virginia Insurance Commissioner was ambiguous and he should not have been denied benefits because his participation in the work-release program was voluntary. He further alleged that his equal protection rights were violated because he was being denied workers’ compensation benefits after being injured on the job while working for a state agency. He claimed that if he had been working for a private enterprise, he would not have been denied benefits.

After reviewing the contract between the DOC and the DOH, the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the DOC’s statutory interpretation of the law, as its contract stated that inmates on work release are not classified as “employees.” They ruled that while an inmate’s participation in the work-release program is voluntary, the work they are assigned to is imposed upon them by the Department of Corrections. Therefore, inmates are not entitled to workers’ compensation or other insurance benefits available to employees of state agencies.

The court interpreted section 23-4-1e(b) as allowing an inmate on work release to file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits if he were hurt on the job for his usual employer during his usual work. It did not apply its decision to inmates injured while on work release to a private business.

Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe can help if there are claims against your business while contracting labor through a PIE Certification Program in West Virginia. If you have any concerns or questions about the potential for a liability claim made by an injured inmate, call 304-344-0100 or contact us online for experienced and knowledgeable answers and assistance.