Rhode Island: Utilizing “Street-Peril” or Street Risk Doctrine, Supreme Court Reverses Denial of Claim by Verizon Employee Assaulted by Random Stranger

The Supreme Court of Rhode Island recently quashed a decree by the state’s Workers’ Compensation Court Appellate Division that in turn had affirmed a denial of workers’ compensation benefits to a Verizon service technician who was assaulted by a random stranger while the employee worked on outdoor cable lines in Providence [Ellis v. Verizon New England, Inc., No. 2010–431 (April 12, 2013), see http://www.courts.ri.gov/Courts/SupremeCourt/Opinions/10–431.pdf].  

Ellis, a splice service technician employed by Verizon, was severely injured when he was assaulted by a stranger in the West End of the City of Providence. He had been sent to that location by his employer to repair outdoor cable lines. Ellis testified that when he arrived he heard a man, who was standing across the street, yelling, among other things: “The country is going down. The president is dead.” Although he initially ignored the man and went about his repair work, Ellis eventually asked the man if there was a problem. Ellis indicated the man responded by picking up a piece of wood and hitting Ellis on the head several times. Ellis was taken to the hospital where he received fourteen staples to treat two wounds to his head. Later, Ellis also sought psychological counseling for anxiety related to the attack.

Ellis’ claim for workers’ compensation benefits was denied following a trial; the trial judge concluded that Ellis had failed to prove that his injuries arose out of and in the course of his employment. The Workers’ Compensation Court Appellate Division affirmed the trial judge’s denial of benefits. The Supreme Court granted Ellis’s petition for a writ of certiorari.

Citing the discussion of the various forms of risks associated with work-related injuries discussed in Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, §§ 3.01–3.05, 6.01–6.05, 8.03, the Court quashed the decree of the Appellate Division, holding that Ellis’ injuries were compensable under the “street-peril” (sometimes referred to as “street risk”) doctrine. The court indicated the doctrine was not limited to claims involving automobile accidents, that by requiring Ellis to travel and park on public streets, Verizon exposed its employee to various street perils, including assaults by random strangers. The Court also stressed that its decision should not be seen as a retreat from the “actual-risk” test [Larson, § 6.01, et seq.] Quoting from Hudson v. Thurston Motor Lines, Inc., 583 S.W.2d 597, 602 (Tenn. 1979), the Court recognized the principle “that the risks of the street are the risks of the employment, if the employment requires the employee’s use of the street.”

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