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What if I get hurt while working from home during the shelter in place?

On Behalf of | Apr 10, 2020 | Workers' Compensation |

Thousands of Missouri employees are now being required to work from home as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Being able to work from home not only provides you security in your job, but also plays an integral role in keeping Missouri businesses open. While working from home used to be an occasional convenience, home workers are now truly a second employment location where work is required to be performed.

So what happens if you are working for your employer at your home, as required by your employer, when you are injured?Obviously there is not going to be binding law on this exact issue right now. But, examining the history of the workers compensation statutes and case law interpreting the statute could give us an idea what might happen if you end up injured while working from home.

Workers compensation statutes require that the employee must present a causal connection between the injury at issue and the employee’s work activities (287.020.3 (2)). The injury must have occurred because the risk of injury was due to some condition of the workers employment. In other words, the employee must have been injured because of work duties and not simply while he or she was at work.

Further, if the injury comes from a hazard or risk of injury unrelated to the employment which the worker would have been equally exposed to outside of and unrelated to his or her employment, there is no coverage. Note that there have been some recent appellate court decisions restricting the scope of this “equal exposure” rule.

So it would seem that if you are lifting a box of heavy work papers at home and injure your back, you would be in a better position to be covered than if you tripped over your dog.

In 1998, the Missouri Court of Appeals addressed, if not an identical situation, then at least an analogous situation. Note that there have been changes in the workers compensation statutes since this case was decided which could limit its applicability.

In the Western District decision, the court was persuaded that work to be performed by the employee at home on the night of his accident was considered to be an integral part of the conduct of the employer’s business. So, workers compensation benefits were awarded.

The facts of that case were a bit strange. But, there is interesting language in the case which some may say could apply today.

There, the Missouri Court of Appeals found in favor of a telemarketing manager who routinely performed work at home, drafting ads and conducting performance reviews. He testified that these duties were performed at home because there was insufficient time to perform them during the regular office hours. The court considered the employee’s work done at home an “integral part” of the conduct of his employer’s business.

One evening, the employee was asked to meet his employer at a bar to discuss a possible promotion. The employee admitted that while at the bar he consumed “about” four beers and three shots of tequila with his boss. He testified that he left the bar to drive home (ahem-don’t do this!) He testified he was on his way home to do his nightly performance reviews before coming to work the next day. On the way home, he was in a one vehicle accident.

Although this employees claims about going home to carry out performance reviews after four beers and three shots of tequila may have been at the least questionable, the court found in favor of the employee. The court opined that an employee’s injuries arise out of his employment “if they are a natural and reasonable incident thereof, and they are in the course of employment if the accident occurs within a period of employment at a place where the employee may reasonably be fulfilling the duties of employment”.

How might that apply to a work from home employee? If your employer requires you to be at home and you are reasonably fulfilling the duties of your employment and are injured, there is certainly some precedent in the work comp statutes and case law to get this covered. We don’t suggest that you first drink four beers and have three shots of tequila, however!

Paraphrasing from the court’s decision, “… If the exposure to the perils of (the home) is related to the employment even though the employment is not the sole cause of such exposure to such risks but is combined with or is a concurrent personal cause, the benefit of compensation is not to be withdrawn”.

The court looked to whether the act being performed at the time of the incident was for the mutual benefit of the employer and the employee such that if some advantage to the employer results from the employee’s conduct at the time of the injury then workers compensation coverage could apply. This is known as Missouri’s “mutual benefit doctrine”.

Certainly, these claims would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Since 1998 when this case was decided, the legislature amended the workers compensation statutes in 2005, noting that when this case was decided the court was under the obligation to “liberally construe” the workers compensation laws to “place upon industry the losses sustained by employees”. In 2005, the legislature decided that the law was to be “strictly construed” and the evidence to be weighed “impartially without giving the benefit of the doubt to any party”. So, in today’s legal environment, cases such as this one which applied a liberal construction of the law to resolve questions in favor of coverage for the employee are not as persuasive.

Not every injury at home may qualify. Nevertheless, the court was heavily persuaded by an often cited treatise on workers compensation law, Larson’s workers compensation volume 1 section 18.31 noting that workers compensation coverage should attach when “it can genuinely and not fictionally be said that the home has become part of the employment premises”. Which, as we all now know could include remote workers working from home at the direction of their employer.

If you have an injury that occurs at home while performing work for the benefit of your employer, treat this as a normal work injury and immediately notify your employer. in most cases, you have 30 days to file a written report. We at Hall Ansley have state sponsored forms for completing and filing these notice of injury reports. We will be happy to help.

We at Hall Ansley are always here to answer any questions you may have and help guide you along the way.

Stay safe and stay healthy!

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