Expert Commentary

Workers Compensation and Course of Employment

All workers compensation laws require an injured employee to be within the course of employment in order to qualify for benefits. But what does this mean? Learn how courts have interpreted and expanded the definition, and what employers can do to manage this risk.


Workers Compensation Issues
February 2001

All workers compensation laws require an injured employee to be within the course of employment in order to qualify for benefits. However, this simple phrase has generated much litigation and frustration as courts have struggled to fulfill the liberal application of social legislation and balance that ideal with a reasonable limit to the costs for employers.

This struggle is reflected over years of court decisions. Ultimately, it appears that the social intent of the legislation has overpowered any restriction with regard to costs to employers. Pennsylvania case law is reflective of this phenomenon and is in line with most states.

Does Injury Occur in the Course of Employment?

The key issue in determining whether an employee is in the course of employment is whether the employee is injured while actually engaged in the furtherance of the employer's business or affairs. [Scher v WCAB, 2526 C.D. 1998 (Pa Cmwlth September 23, 1999).] Several examples will indicate the court's reluctance to find that an injury is not within the course of employment.

  • A police officer was shot while cleaning his weapon at a home. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held the event compensable as the officer had no place to store the weapon at work. [City of Harrisburg v WCAB, 616 A2d 1369 (1992).]
  • An employee, on her day off, was injured while picking up her paycheck. This injury was held to be a covered employment situation since picking up a paycheck pursuant to an employer-approved practice is a sufficient relationship to the business of the employer. [Hoffmann v WCAB, 41 W.D. Appeal Docket 1999 (December 23, 1999).]
  • An employee who sneezed during a meeting with his employer and suffered a detached retina was also held to be within the course of his employment. [Carroll v WCAB, 1516 C.D. (1999 C.D.) (Pa Cmwlth 1999).]
  • Employees have recovered for participating in charity volleyball games organized by an employer-sanctioned employee association [Meritor Financial v WCAB, 603 A2d 692 (1992)]; using a gym on the employer's premises during lunch with the employer's knowledge [Hemmler v WCAB, 569 A2d 395 (1990)]; and engaging in a softball game on a company-sponsored team [Scott v WCAB, 536 A2d 492 (1988)].

All of the above examples indicate the liberal expansion to the notion of course of employment administered by the courts.

Cost-Saving Tips for Risk Management

Make social events voluntary. An employer should not make attendance at a social event mandatory. The less control that an employer exerts over social events, the less chance there will be that an injury during a softball game, volleyball game, basketball game, etc., will be considered within the course of employment.

Enforce work rules. If the employer has a valid set of work rules that are enforced, such employee behavior as fighting, foul language, and wandering to restricted areas of the plant can all be considered activities which would remove the employee from the course of employment.

Keep traveling employees to a minimum. There are innumerable cases of traveling employees being hurt while in vehicles, hotels, and restaurants. In order to avoid this liability, traveling employees should be kept to a minimum if your business permits.

Do not send fixed place employees on special missions unless absolutely necessary. If your employees work at one location, the employer must try to keep casual missions by these employees to a minimum. Thus, sending an employee to obtain a form at a state office building or run other errands increases workers compensation exposure.

Investigate all claims. As always, good factual investigation on any questionable course of employment claims will pay dividends during litigation.

If these tips can be applied in your business, you should see a reduction in workers compensation exposure.

Fixed Place of Employment Employees

A further distinction occurs between employees with a fixed place of employment and those employees who travel on behalf of their employer. A fixed place of employment employee generally is not paid or covered under workers compensation while traveling to and from work. This is known as the coming-and-going rule. However, there are exceptions as follows:

  1. The employment contract includes transportation to and from work.
  2. The claimant has no fixed place of work.
  3. The claimant is on a special assignment for the employer.
  4. Special circumstances are such that the claimant was furthering the business of the employer.

These exceptions all indicate that if a fixed place of employment employee is traveling on a mission for the employer, that employer will cover the employee for any injuries suffered while on that mission. In accordance with this rule, a police officer injured while commuting to work on a motorcycle was not covered under the workers compensation statute. Similarly, a construction worker injured in a company truck during lunch break away from the construction site was not within the course of his employment. [Beaver & Casey, Inc. v WCAB, 661 A2d 40 (1995).]

Traveling Employees

A traveling employee has a much broader scope. A traveling employee must be considered to have abandoned employment in order not to be covered under the workers compensation statutes. Thus, an employee injured in the bathroom of a motel while on layover was held to be in the course of employment. An employee who drowned while engaging in recreational activities after the employee had checked in with the customer and was told that services would not be needed that day was still within the course of employment. [Evans v WCAB, 664 A2d 216 (Pa Cmwlth 1995).]

An example of an abandonment of employment would be Carr v WCAB, 671 A2d 780 (Pa Cmwlth 1995). In this case, benefits were denied after the claimant suffered injuries in a motor vehicle accident that occurred while the claimant was driving back to a hotel. The claimant had been staying at the hotel with the approval of the employer; however, the accident occurred after the claimant pursued personal interests, which included sightseeing and drinking. Under these circumstances, the employee was considered to have abandoned the interests of the employer and therefore was not covered.

In summary, courts have generally given a very liberal interpretation to the concept of course of employment. However, as seen with traveling employees, an employee can abandon employment.

Was the Employee Acting within the Scope of Employment?

Another area where the course of employment has been considered to be abandoned is through an intentional act of the employee which is contrary to the employer's interests. An employee who collected cans from the employer's premises with the intention of selling them and was injured when he took them to a car parked on a public street was not within the course of employment.

Further, injuries caused by fighting among employees or injuries caused by violating the law, with regard to drugs and alcohol, are not generally compensable. In these cases, the burden of proof rests with the employer to prove that the employee was not acting within the scope of employment.

Conclusion

In general, the course of employment has been liberally interpreted by the courts. However, certain exceptions exist to protect the employer from questionable course of employment cases. An employee who is not furthering the interests of the employer is not considered within the course of employment. Further, an employee who breaks the law or violates work rules can be excluded from the course of employment but it is the burden of the employer to prove that exclusion.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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