Court of appeals affirms workman’s comp case involving deputy killed in crash

April 3, 2019

The Nebraska Court of Appeals has affirmed a workman’s compensation decision denying death benefits to the young daughter of a Colfax County sheriff’s deputy who crashed on his way home from work while off the clock.

On Jan. 12, 2016, Daniel Coughlin, a 36-year-old Colfax County sheriff’s deputy from Fremont, died after hitting a deer carcass and crashing head-on with a vehicle while on his cellphone driving home from work in his personal car.

At a trial last year, the Workers’ Compensation Court determined the crash hadn’t arisen out of his work or in the course of his job and that there hadn’t been any evidence of a connection between the call and the crash.

It denied a petition on behalf of Coughlin’s daughter, Addisen, seeking workers’ compensation death benefits from Colfax County.

On appeal, attorney Brad Nick, said while Coughlin was off the clock and in his personal car, he was talking to a deputy starting his shift about civil papers that had been served, about an incident that day in Schuyler and a personnel matter, before the call abruptly ended.

Attorney David Dudley, who was there on Colfax County’s behalf, argued it came down to this: Did being on the cellphone that day create any additional risk to Coughlin?

He argued the answer was no.

“There is zero evidence that would indicate that that particular risk increased the chance that Deputy Coughlin would be in an accident and ultimately lose his life,” he said.

In a decision Tuesday, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Frankie J. Moore said the court found that Coughlin’s use of his cellphone while driving wasn’t an employer-created condition.

While the sheriff’s department expected deputies to exchange shift-change information, it did not dictate how to do so, the judge wrote. For example, it could have been done before clocking out.

Moore said the department didn’t instruct deputies to use their cellphones while driving.

“In fact, the department’s policy prohibited employees from using their cellphones while driving a county-owned vehicle and instructed them to pull over while engaging in a telephone conversation,” she said.

The Court of Appeals also agreed with the Workers’ Compensation Court, which found that because Coughlin had to report to the courthouse before beginning his shift, the rule applied.

The findings meant the appellate court didn’t reach the question of whether it would have been a dramatic expansion of workers compensation law if the court had decided Colfax County did owe the girl death benefits.

Dudley had argued it would. Nick argued it wouldn’t because deputies were different than other state and county employees who drive for work.

It’s too soon to say whether the case will be appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.