Monday, September 12, 2011

Decedent in Home Office Was Not in Course of Employment if on Personal Comfort Break

In Werner v. WCAB (Greenleaf Service Corporation) the decedent had a home office. The claimant surviving spouse found the decedent unresponsive in his home office desk chair. The decedent suffered a massive intracranial hemorrage. The evidence indicated the decedent fell on his outside steps, then went in an upstairs bathroom before going down to his home office.

The defense focused on testimony that the decedent was supposed to be in the employer's headquarters when he was not travelling in his job in international sales. The employer did not dispute that it provided the office equipment in the home office or that the claimant sent some work related e-mails the morning of his accident. The claimant had cancelled an overseas trip because he was getting medical care for a hand laceration. The employer witnesses testified they considered him to be on sick leave, and the WCJ found this testimony credible. The WCJ found the claimant to be not in the scope of employment.

The claimant, however, was salaried with flexible hours and had made no formal request for sick leave. The Commonwealth Court framed the issue as whether the decedent was furthering the business interests of the employer when he was injured. The precedent they analyzed was Verizon Pennsylvania, Inc. v. WCAB (Alston), a case in which the claimant worked in a home office. In Alston, the claimant received a work related phone call while on a personal comfort break. She fell down the stairs while still on the phone.

The Court explained an employee in a home office is a "stationary" employee. When a stationary employee leaves the premises during authorized breaks for personal reasons, the employee is not within the course of employment. The claimant bears the burden to prove all elements of the claim. Because the claimant in this case could not prove the decedent was furthering the business interests of the employer when he fell outside, the claimant did not meet her burden to show the decedent was injured in the scope of employment. The decision of the WCJ was affirmed.

Although not cited by the Court, the case of Department of Labor and Industry v. WCAB (Savani) is on point. In that case, an employee on a paid break went outside for a walk around the building and fell in the street. The WCJ and WCAB awarded benefits, but the Court held the claimant was a stationary employee attending to her personal comfort and was not acting in furtherance of the employer's business or affairs. The Court reversed, holding the claimant's injuries were not in the scope of employment.

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