The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed a decision by a district court in West Virginia, finding for an insurer who refused to defend an inmate against a lawsuit. Originally, the District Court of the Southern District of West Virginia had found that Ezra Lambert, an inmate at Southwestern Regional Jail, should be defended by National Union Fire Insurance Company because he met the definition of a “volunteer worker.”
The incident that sparked the lawsuit took place in 2006. Lambert was working in the jail’s kitchen six days a week, eight hours a day, as a cook. Betty Jean Hale, a jail employee who worked in the kitchen with Lambert, alleged that Lambert injured her while pushing a cart carrying a mixer. The mixer fell and injured Hale’s foot, resulting in medical bills. Hale then filed suit in state court, naming Lambert along with the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, and the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority. When National Union Fire Insurance Company — the state’s insurance company at the time — learned that Lambert had been named a defendant, it filed a declaration stating that it had no duty to defend or provide other policy benefits to Lambert.
Both Hale and Lambert sought a court order declaring Lambert insured under state policy, which would allow Lambert to defense as well as indemnification. The district court ruled that Lambert qualified as a volunteer worker under state law, and was therefore covered by state insurance, due to Lambert’s work in the kitchen without compensation. However, the Fourth Circuit ruled that Lambert could not possibly fit the definition of “volunteer worker” as defined by statute. Because Lambert was an inmate and forced to work in the jail, he could not be a volunteer. The Fourth Circuit noted that while a volunteer had the freedom to leave work if it became too onerous, when Lambert tried to protest working conditions by refusing to labor, he was put on lockdown. Lambert therefore was not entitled to be covered by the state insurer.
We at the Wolfe Law Firm think that this was probably the right decision, but an unfortunate one. Being an inmate, Lambert likely has little in the way of resources — Hale probably knew this, which is why she sought coverage for Lambert, so that she could actually receive payment for her medical bills. Now it is unclear what will happen to either of them.
Insurance companies exist to pay out in the event of an accident or a medical issue. The point is to prevent you from going completely broke if you are responsible, or even if you’re not. However, too often insurance companies are tight-fisted and refuse to pay what is owed. It often requires the work of an experienced West Virginia personal injury attorney to get insurers to agree to pay out, usually as part of a settlement. While again, the Fourth Circuit’s verdict was probably correct, it was a reminder that too often, insurance companies are unwilling to help the customers they are meant to serve.