No Recovery for Home-Based Workers’ Comp Adjuster Who Trips Over Her Dog

Deeply Divided Florida Court Says Risk of Tripping Did Not Arise Out of Employment

Emphasizing that eligibility for workers’ compensation benefits turns on whether the employment led to the risk of injury, i.e., whether there was a sufficient causal connection between the employment and the injury [see 440.02(36), Fla. Stat.], a deeply divided Florida appellate court reversed an award of benefits to a home-based worker who sustained injuries when she tripped over her dog as she reached for a coffee cup in her kitchen [Sedgwick CMS v. Valcourt-Williams, 2019 Fla. App. LEXIS 5350 (1st DCA, Apr. 5, 2019)]. Acknowledging that injuries sustained during breaks from work could be compensable under the personal comfort doctrine, the majority of the court stressed that in this case, the risk of injury did not arise out of the employment.

Background

Claimant worked as a workers’ compensation claims adjuster and was assigned to the employer’s Lake Mary, Florida office. Claimant actually lived in Sierra Vista, Arizona, but was permitted to work from her home. Because of the different time zones, claimant began work at 4 a.m. local time to meet the Lake Mary office’s 7 a.m. start time. On the day of the accident, claimant had been working three hours when she went downstairs for a cappuccino. As she reached to get a cup, she fell over one of her two dogs. The fall resulted in knee, hip, and shoulder injuries. The JCC awarded workers’ compensation benefits and the employer appealed.

No Dispute as to “Course and Scope of Employment” Test

The parties stipulated that claimant’s injuries occurred in the course and scope of her employment: the injury was during work hours, her home was where she “would reasonably be,” and her coffee break was a permissible “comfort break.” The issue here was whether the injury arose out of the employment. Relying on the wording of 440.02(36), Fla. Stat., and prior case law, the majority said that an accidental injury or death arises out of employment if work performed in the course and scope of employment is the major contributing cause of the injury or death [emphasis added]. Specifically, the “arising out of” limitation required that the risks that caused claimant’s accident and injuries be work-related. The majority stressed that the employment must, in some way, contribute an “increased risk” of injury peculiar to that employment; otherwise, the statutory requirement that the injury “arise out of employment” would be eliminated.

Risks Existing in Non-Employment Life

The majority continued that it was not enough to say that the incident was a “workplace trip-and-fall” because there was no statutory trip-and-fall provision. Whether the accident was a fall—or anything else—a claimant could not prevail unless there was occupational causation—a risk not existent in the claimant’s “non-employment life.” Here, the majority indicated, there was no such risk.

The majority noted that to adopt the claimant’s position, it would have to hold that an employee’s tripping over her own dog at home on a Friday was attributable to risks of employment while the same employee’s tripping over the same dog at the same home on a Saturday was not. Again, the majority stressed that had claimant suffered an injury from a risk that her employment introduced—e.g., a repetitive stress injury from typing all day—it would be no answer for the employer to say that claimant had been hurt in her own home. Here, however, the risk at issue—that claimant would trip over her own dog in her own kitchen while reaching for a coffee cup—was not a risk her employment introduced.

Strenuous Dissent

Justice Bilbrey, joined by Justice Makar, strenuously dissented. Quoting extensively from Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, the justice argued. in relevant part, that the JCC was correct in finding the risk of tripping over the dog was a neutral risk. Had she tripped over a briefcase, for example, her injuries would have been compensable. That it was a dog should make no difference [see also Sandberg v. JC Penney Co., 243 Ore. App. 342, 260 P. 3d 495 (Or. Ct. App. 2011), compensation awarded for injuries in tripping over worker’s dog at home]. The justice stressed that the claimant was reasonably fulfilling the duties of her employment or engaged in doing something incidental to it when she sustained her injuries.

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