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Ex-farm employee’s agricultural work precludes workers’ comp benefits

July 27, 2017

A former employee of an Indiana farm was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits after an on-the-job injury because the “whole character” of his work was agricultural in nature, thus exempting him under the Worker’s Compensation Act, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Thursday.

In Charles O’Keefe v. Top Notch Farms, 93A02-1702-EX-386, Brandon Wuethrich, a partner with Top Notch Farms Inc., told Charles O’Keefe that Top Notch would hire him if he was willing to do more than simply drive a semi-truck for the company. O’Keefe accepted the job and performed a variety of duties, including cleaning farm trucks, painting the walls of the farm’s shop, sweeping the granary, servicing trucks and hauling crops. Additionally, O’Keefe was active in top Notch’s manure hauling operation.

One day in June 2014, O’Keefe was asked to drive a semi-truck and tanker to Ceres Solutions, where he would pick up liquid fertilizer. While at Ceres, O’Keefe was instructed to stay on top of the tanker as it filled with fertilizer, but due to a computer error the tanker overflowed, knocking O’Keefe to the ground and causing him to lose consciousness.

After the accident, O’Keefe reported the incident to Top Notch and went to the hospital, but never returned to work for Top Notch. Instead, he filed for workers’ compensation benefits with the Indiana Worker’s Compensation Board, asserting Top Notch had refused to treat his injuries as work-related and had not provided any benefits or medical care as required under the Worker’s Compensation Act.

The board denied O’Keefe’s claim, finding he was a farm or agricultural employee at the time of the injury, thus exempting him from relief under the WCA. O’Keefe appealed, arguing the board’s decision was erroneous because he primarily operated a semi-truck for Top Notch and should be considered a truck driver rather than an agricultural employee.

O’Keefe specifically relied on the case of Gerlach v. Woodke, 881 N.E.2d 1006, 1012 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008), which he claimed held that “maintenance work including work on farm machinery” was not agricultural. Based on that holding, O’Keefe argued his work as a truck driver should not be considered agricultural.

But in a unanimous Thursday opinion, the Indiana Court of Appeals said Gerlach calls for an examination of the “whole character” of the work to determine if it is agricultural in nature, so maintenance work is not categorically non-agricultural. Looking at the “whole character” of O’Keefe’s work, Judge Rudolph Pyle wrote O’Keefe’s work as a truck driver, granary sweeper, painter and truck washer, collectively, was agricultural in nature.

Thus, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of O’Keefe’s worker’s compensation benefits because he was exempt from such benefits under the WCA.

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