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West Virginia Prisoner Injured on Work Crew Denied Workers’ Compensation

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals held on June 8, 2017 that “a person confined in a state correctional facility or jail who is participating in a work-release program [is prohibited] from receiving workers’ compensation benefits for any injury sustained while engaged in such work during the person’s period of confinement.”

That ruling came in an appeal by William F. Crawford, who was injured when working on a road crew with the Division of Highways (DOH) while assigned to the Charleston Work Release Center. On March 28, 2013, Crawford was severely hurt when his hand was caught in a wood chipper. He required hospitalization and surgery, and his ring and pinky fingers were partially amputated. The Division of Corrections (DOC) paid over $90,000 in Crawford’s medical bills.

Shortly after his release from the hospital, Crawford was paroled. He then filed a claim for workers’ compensation. That claim was rejected by the claims administrator on November 15, 2013 as Crawford was not considered an “employee,” and the decision was upheld on appeal.

The Supreme Court of Appeals began by noting that Crawford worked on the road crew pursuant to a “Statewide Convict Workforce Agreement” between DOH and DOC. The agreement specified that prisoners “will not be employees of the state entitling them to any benefits such employees might have, including, but not limited to, insurance, workers’ compensation, benefits, pension, sick, and annual leave.”

The Court then focused on a provision of state law. In W.Va. Code § 23-4-1e(b), a prisoner confined in a state prison or jail who “suffers injury or a disease in the course of and resulting from his or her work imposed by the administration of the state correctional facility or jail and is not suffered during the person’s usual employment with his or her usual employer when not confined” cannot receive workers’ compensation benefits.

As Crawford was considered a prisoner and performing work that was imposed upon him, the appellate court agreed that he was properly denied workers’ compensation benefits.

The Court of Appeals also rejected his equal protection claim, as Crawford, like prisoners who work for a private business on work release, had received treatment for his work-related injuries.

The decision of the Workers’ Compensation Board of Review was therefore affirmed. See: Crawford v. W. Virginia Department of Corrections, 801 S.E.2d 252 (W.Va. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Crawford v. W. Virginia Department of Corrections