In a truly bizarre case, a divided Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held that the state’s Commonwealth Court erred in finding that a claimant met her burden of proving that she sustained a work-related injury in the course and scope of her employment when she was brutally stabbed by her son while she was sleeping in her bedroom [O’Rourke v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd. (Gartland), 2015 Pa. LEXIS 2420 (Oct. 27, 2015)]. The majority of the Supreme Court said that the claimant had not shown her injuries were within the type of harm the Legislature intended to provide compensation for under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The majority specifically agreed with the Commonwealth Court’s dissent, which had stated that it “defied logic” to find this case to have involved a work-related injury.
Claimant was paid an hourly wage under a state-funded program that provided attendant care for her thirty-three year old son, who suffers from significant health issues related to his long-term drug use. Under the arrangement, the individual requiring care is designated as the employer and the caregiver is considered an employee. The program arranged for the claimant to be “hired” by her son to provide the necessary care and support. Claimant’s son had no home of his own, so he moved into his mother’s home to receive treatment. Under the program, workers’ compensation coverage was provided by a standard workers’ compensation insurance policy.
The son, wielding a butcher knife, attacked and stabbed his mother as she lay in her bed at approximately 1:30 a.m. one morning. There was some evidence that the two had a disagreement a few hours earlier regarding the mother’s food preparation; the son had never attacked her before. The state’s Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board determined that the claimant was not injured in the course of her employment. The Board also found the claimant had failed to prove the attack was associated in any way with the employment relationship.
The Bunkhouse Rule
The majority of the Commonwealth Court disagreed, finding the incident compensable, essentially under the bunkhouse rule. The majority of the high court disagreed, indicating that the claimant was not required to be on the premises at the time of her injury. The majority noted that the claimant’s employment contract and job description did not require her to work late-night shifts, provide 24-hour care, or be on call for her son’s needs since her son did not qualify to receive funding for an overnight caretaker. The majority added that the bunkhouse rule covered situations in which an employee’s living arrangement on the work premises was reasonably necessary to perform the tasks required by the employer. At the time of the knife attack, that was not the case here, indicated the majority. The majority also indicated that in the typical application of the bunkhouse rule, the employer supplied housing for the employee. Here the situation was reversed. The employee owned the residential premises, not the employer.
The majority acknowledged that the remedial nature of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act, but observed that the state’s courts also had to be mindful that the Act was not intended to make the employer an insurer of its employees’ lives and health.