Employers: Beware Worker’s Comp Claims for Household Accidents

Imagine having to defend a workers’ compensation claim against an employee who injured himself when he tripped over an extension cord in his or her own house.  Can this really happen?

The answer is technically yes, if the employee is a telecommuter.

To prevail on a workers’ compensation claim, an injured employee must demonstrate that his injury occurred “within the course of and arising out of” his or her employment.   This same requirement applies regardless of whether the employee is working from your office or from home.

Proving that the injury occurred “in the course of employment” depends largely upon when and where the injury occurred, and the circumstances of the accident.  To show that the injury “arose out of” his or her employment, the worker must establish the causal connection between the employment and the injury.  In other words, workers must have been engaged in an activity consistent with their employment and logically related to the employer’s business in order to be covered by workers’ compensation.   Generally, accidents that occur while an employee is running a personal errand during the work day are not covered by workers’ compensation.

These rules are simple enough to apply when an employee is working in your own office.  If someone breaks their knee falling down the stairs on their way to a meeting, the case is pretty cut-and-dry.  If they break the same knee at a restaurant during the lunch hour, they’re on their own.

So what about the hapless employee who tripped over the extension cord while working from home?  Applying the analysis above, if the accident occurred during work hours while walking from the computer to the printer to retrieve a work document, then coverage is likely.  If, however, the employee cut off a finger while slicing a bagel during a break, then a workers’ comp claim will probably fail.

As you can see, the specific facts surrounding the injury in question are crucial, and the facts are much easier to establish or refute when the injury occurs at the office, in front of witnesses.  Because there are unlikely to be disinterested witnesses at a worker’s house, one of the more important aspects determining whether a home-based worker will prevail on a workers’ compensation claim is the issue of his or her credibility.

This is where you as an employer can minimize some risk.  Not all workers are suited to work from home.  When considering whether to allow someone to telecommute, make certain you know the employee is responsible and has a good worth ethic.  You should also set defined work hours, and do your best to monitor your employee’s activities when working from home.  Require him or her to log in to a network, and make certain they log out during breaks and at lunch.

Finally, if you’re going to embrace telecommuting, establish a clearly written policy and make certain it’s included in your employee handbook.

Seth Heyman
Seth D. Heyman is a California attorney with extensive experience in advertising and marketing law, corporate law, contracts, governmental regulations, international business, and Internet law. He has counseled numerous successful companies, both public and private, and was responsible for regulatory compliance, contract management, corporate governance, and HR best practices for multiple organizations in many diverse industries, including marketing, telecommunications, energy, and technology development. He offers insight and guidance on federal and state direct mail, TV, radio, telemarketing, and Internet marketing laws, as well as online promotions, Internet privacy, data protection regulations, and similar matters.