The Court of Appeals of Virginia recently reversed a decision by the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission that had awarded workers’ compensation benefits to a nurse who injured her finger on a piece of Velcro® when she reached inside her handbag to retrieve her “favorite” pen [CJW Med. Ctr. v. Wallace, 2012 Va. App. LEXIS 249 (July 31, 2012)]. Quoting Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, §§ 4.03, 9.03, the court said that a risk of injury imported into the workplace solely by the employee – without any knowledge, encouragement, or acquiescence by the employer – cannot be deemed a condition of employment under which the work is required to be performed; there must be “some employment contribution to the risk when the initial source of harm is a distinctly personal danger.”
The handbag in question had been given to the nurse by her mother. Within the bag she kept her purse, wallet, moisturizing lotion, and other personal items. She also used the handbag to carry things she used in her work, such as a stethoscope, scissors, and pens. She admitted that the employer did not require her to bring these items to work and there was no suggestion that the employer required her to transport the items in her personal handbag.
The court continued that the commission majority noted “that the outcome of this case might have been different if the claimant was reaching into her work bag to retrieve a personal item such as a hairbrush or her wallet at the time of her injury” [Wallace, 2011 VA Wrk. Comp. LEXIS 392]. The appellate court, however, did not find that distinction persuasive. The cause of the injury was not the pen, but the handbag, noted the court. The pen did not scratch the nurse’s finger, the defective Velcro® on her handbag did. The court stated that it was the hazard that actually caused the injury that mattered. The inverse was also true. If the handbag were truly a hazard of her employment it would make no difference why the nurse had reached into it – the injury would have arisen out of her employment.