Second Quarter 2018
By: Joshua Stegeman
Question: If an employee (“telecommuter”) who works primarily from home is injured while performing a task related to his or her job duties, is the injury compensable even though the event occurred in the employee’s home?
Short Answer: Yes, in Missouri, so long as the employee meets the burden of proving the injury “arose out of and in the course of” employment then injuries suffered at home would likely be compensable depending on the specific facts of the accident. At this time in Missouri, there is little case law or distinction for “telecommuter” employees; therefore, their injuries are analyzed under the same applicable law that is applied to other employees injuries which happen in a separate workplace location.
Discussion: To receive benefits under the Missouri Workers Compensation statutes (Section 287.020.3(2)), an injured employee must show that an injury arose out of and in the course of the employment only if:
(a) It is reasonably apparent, upon consideration of all the circumstances, that the accident is the prevailing factor in causing the injury; and
(b) It does not come from a hazard or risk unrelated to the employment to which workers would have been equally exposed outside of and unrelated to the employment in normal nonemployment life. RSMo 287.020.3(2)
Under Missouri law, whether the injury was a hazard or risk related to the employment to which the employee would have been exposed to the injury equally outside of the employment is the primary defense for the employer for at-home accidents. Alas, this standard was not enacted until the 2005 Amendments were passed to the Missouri Worker’s Compensation statutes. Since that time, the courts have not applied the standard to many at-home or telecommuter cases. However, when the courts do apply this standard, it is a fact-intensive inquiry for each case. Prior to the 2005 Amendments, the courts did address some at-home work situations, but mainly when dealing with cases involving motorists travelling to and from home and work. The key question was whether the travel to or from home was necessary for the employee to perform one’s job duties. In other words, did the employee have to be at the one to complete the job?
The leading Missouri case that discusses at-home work injuries is Rogers v. Pacesetter Corp., 972 S.W.2d 540 (1998). In that case, the employee usually worked twelve hour shifts at the employer’s headquarters Monday through Friday, worked for a portion of Saturday, and it was well-established that he would go home and continue to work because there wasn’t sufficient time to complete all of the tasks that needed to be finished during his time at work. The employee was injured while driving home to complete some work for his employer that needed to be done by the next day. The Court indicated that the key inquiry in determining if an injury at-home is compensable is whether the work performed at home by employee “’was an integral part of the conduct of his employer’s business,’ and not only a convenience to employee.” Rogers, 972 S.W.2d 545.
But in Rogers, the Appellate Court held that the injuries were compensable under the Dual Purpose Doctrine, which states, “’If the work of the employee creates the necessity for travel, he is in the course of his employment, though he is serving at the same time some purpose of his own.’” Cox v. Copeland Bros. Const. Co., 589 S.W.2d 55, 57 (Mo.App. W.D.1979). The Dual Purpose Doctrine is usually applicable to travelling employee situations. Whereas the Mutual Benefit Doctrine requires only that the injury to the employee must have occurred during the performance of an act for the mutual benefit of the employer and the employee where some advantage to the employer resulted from the employee’s conduct. Graham v. La-Z-Boy Chair Co., 117 S.W.3d 182, 186 (Mo. App. 2003). Both of these Doctrines could apply to at-home work injuries, but at this time the Missouri courts have not directly applied those doctrines to at-home work injuries since the 2005 Amendments.
In another 1998 case, the Missouri Labor and Industrial Commission (“Commission”) reinforced the idea that the employee’s work at home was an “integral part” of the employer’s work. Rowe-Kerr v. State of Missouri, 1998 WL 809881 (Mo.Lab.Ind.Rel.Com. 1998). In Rowe-Kerr, the employee was a court reporter that was responsible providing and keeping all of her own supplies which she kept at home. Her Judge was aware of that she completed work at home and kept equipment and supplies there. The employee was injured when she left court at lunch to return home and retrieve more supplies for the afternoon docket. In the course of returning to the courthouse, she was involved in a motor vehicle accident. The Commission held that the injury was compensable and reasoned that recovery must be limited to those “truly exceptional circumstances in which the employee’s home is truly a second employment location in that more than occasional employment services are rendered here.”
However, the Commission has also denied several attempts to apply the Dual Purpose Doctrine or Mutual Benefit Doctrine to what employees argued were at-home work accidents based on the cases listed below:
- In Reed, the employee was injured in the course of walking to his car to go home. The employee argued the Dual Purpose Doctrine applied to his circumstances because he was returning home to do further work for his employer. In this case, the Commission denied the compensability of the injury because the facts suggested the employee’s primary reason for returning home was not to complete work, but rather it was a secondary purpose and not a pressing matter for the employee to complete. Reed v. KTUF Radio Station, 1991 WL 502122 (Mo.Lab.Ind.Rel.Com. 1991).
- In Chappell, the employee was injured while returning home to await a work phone call. The Commission held that “the facts do not support a finding that the claimant’s regular place of abode constituted an integral part of the conduct of his employer’s business, and not just a convenience to the claimant.” However, the Commission awarded benefits to the employee because he was driving a company car at the time of accident. Chappell v. H Two Only Water Purification System, 1999 WL 33321024 (Mo.Lab.Ind.Rel.Com. 1999).
- In Dunn, the employee was injured while working at home. The Commission denied the compensability of the injury because the employee’s work went against the direct wishes of the employer. The employer had expressly requested that no employee complete work at home and the employee defied that directive. Dunn v. Jordan Concrete, 2006 WL 2338024 (Mo.Lab.Ind.Rel.Com. 2006).
Practice Tip: The specific facts surrounding an employee’s injury at home are critical to the analysis and proving it arose out of and in the course of the employment. The most important information to obtain is precisely what the employee was doing when the accident occurred to determine if it actually “arose out of” the employee’s employment and job duties. Therefore, obtaining a detailed recorded statement or written accident report is valuable to assess what activity the employee was performing at the time of the accident and whether it was within the scope of the employee’s job duties. If an employer is aware of the employee’s work from home, that it can only be performed from the home, and approves of that work, then the courts are more inclined to find compensability in those instances. Furthermore, the employer should be mindful that both the Dual Purpose Doctrine and the Mutual Purpose Doctrine may be applicable if the employee and the employer are deriving some benefit from the employee’s actions, even if the actions may be outside the general scope of the employee’s duties.
Some employers have attempted to assert control over the work area and define the workplace and hours. employers can set rules for what constitutes work in the employee’s home, what hours the employee is considered to be working, and even purchase equipment or furnish a separate space for the employee which defines the workplace at home. All of these actions by the employer help to identify the working environment and when the employee is considered to be doing work in the home environment. The advantage to setting these parameters is that the employer can limit the scope of what is considered work in the home environment. However, it may also limit the productivity and convenience of working at home for the employee. Also, any affirmative acts the employer takes to control the employee’s work space at home will most certainly be construed as part of the employee’s workplace for any potential injuries. Also, the more the employer micromanages the employee’s home work place, the more likely the courts are to attribute whether something was foreseeable to the employer that might cause the employee’s injury. Nevertheless, establishing some of these guidelines and restrictions will help to define the working space and identify to the employee what is considered work at home. Finally, if the employer strictly forbids certain work at home, it seems the courts in the Missouri are inclined to find for the employer when the employee directly defies one of these rules. Therefore, it could benefit the employer to identify specific activities that the employer prohibits as work at home.