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Did my accident happen in the course of my employment?

The starting point of any workers compensation case is answering this question:  Did my accident happen at work?  

Often, it's clear that you were working when the accident happened. But what if you're not sure whether you got injured at work? The Virginia Worker's Compensation Act covers any employee injured “in the course of employment.” This refers to when and where you were injured, what you were doing when you got injured, and sometimes why you were doing it. This article will help you understand some of the gray areas for these issues, and whether your injury might be covered by Worker's Compensation.

I Was Going to Work, or Leaving Work. Am I Covered?

Generally, if the accident happened when you were going to work, or coming from work, then it did not happen “in the course of employment.” The reason for this is that you were not yet “on the job.” That means that your injury won't be covered. But there are three main exceptions where your injury might be covered by Worker's Compensation.

The first exception is where your employer provided the transportation that were using to get to or from work when the accident happened. But if your employer gave you transportation simply as a favor, then it won't be enough to be considered “in the course of employment.” The exception applies if your employer supplies transportation so regularly that it's essentially part of the job arrangement, or if transportation is given to benefit the employer in some way. For example, if you work at construction sites and you normally meet your supervisor somewhere and then ride with him to the job site, an accident that happens on the way to the job site would still be “on the job.” The exception can also apply if you are reimbursed for your mileage in an amount that actually reflects the expenses of travel. A few cases in the past involved workers who got injured on the way to a remote job site, and were only paid a couple of extra dollars a day for working at the distant location. This wasn't actually travel reimbursement, but only a small bonus to encourage employees to take the assignment. Therefore, the transportation was not provided by the employer and the injuries did not occur in the course of employment.

The second exception to the “coming and going” rule, where your injury would be covered, is when the accident happened in a place that was the only way to get to the job. If there is only one road, or entryway, to the workplace, and your accident happened there, then your accident essentially happened “on the job.” The reason behind this is that Worker's Compensation sees your employer as having “invited” you to use the only available means of ingress and egress, when you have no other choice.

The last exception to the “going and coming” rule is when your employer gave you some work-related duty or task to do on your way to or from work. If you left the office at the end of the day but had to stop by the bank to drop off a deposit from work, and your accident happens on your way there, then it still happened “in the course of employment” and your injury should be covered.

I Got Hurt Right Outside My Job. Can That Still Be Covered?

If your injury happened during your scheduled shift and on your employer's premises, then it typically counts as “in the course of employment.” But if it happened off the premises, it's not “in the course of employment” unless your employer had a certain amount of control over the area. Not all parking lots right outside the building are owned by the employer. If your accident happened in a portion of the parking lot that was to be used exclusively by your employer, then that might be considered “extended premises” and your injury might be covered, or “compensable.” But if your employer does not own, help maintain, or reserve an exclusive area of the parking lot or garage, then it's not part of the extended premises. If your workplace is one set of offices in a shared office building, the lobby, elevator, and other common areas leading to your offices are often the extended premises, and an accident that happens there might be compensable. The accident has to have happened in a place where you were reasonably expected by your employer to be. If you take a break and go outside on a personal phone call, and you slip and fall, then that might not be “in the course of employment.”

Before and After Work

Just because you clocked out doesn't mean that you instantly won't be covered for any accident that happens afterward. Virginia Worker's Compensation understands that there's no such thing as an “instantaneous exit” from the place of employment. If you are are passing over your employer's premises to or from your work with the consent of your employer, then any injury sustained is still “in the course of employment.” The same thing applies at the beginning and end of lunch breaks. If your employer requires you to be in a particular place by a particular time, then your presence on the premises in order to get there must be expected by your employer and you are essentially “on the job.” The focus here is on what is reasonable and expected of an employee. If your employer provides locker rooms and showers, then you are still “in the course of employment” when you are taking a shower after your shift is over. But if you leave work, and then come back for some non-work-related reason, then you are no longer “on the job” and any accident that happened then would not be covered under Worker's Compensation.

The “Personal Comfort Doctrine”

Nobody can work a whole shift without once stopping to take a drink, eat something, or go to the bathroom. Over the years, Worker's Compensation has formed a rule that if an employee stops work for a short while to satisfy basic physical needs, then that employee is still “in the course of employment.” One of the older Virginia cases illustrating this doctrine involved a delivery worker who climbed onto the running board of a soft drink truck, that was still moving, to get a drink for his own consumption. He was still entitled to compensation, because he was performing the act for his own “personal comfort.” Here again, the focus is on what is reasonable and expected of employees. If your employer is aware that employees often make personal phone calls on their breaks, then your injury that happened during such a phone call may still be “in the course of employment.” However, Virginia has gone to great lengths to avoid specifically saying whether a smoke break falls within the personal comfort doctrine, whether or not the employer sanctions it.

Work-Related Events Outside of Regular Hours

What if you were injured at a recreational or social event that your employer hosted or promoted? If the events happen regularly, if your employer required you to be there, or if your employer benefited from the event in a tangible way, then it was probably “in the course of employment” and your injury may be covered. The benefit that your employer receives from the event must be more than just the general benefit of having employees who are happier because they got to have some fun. Ordinarily, voluntarily participating in sports is not “in the course of employment.” But a guidance counselor who was injured while practicing for a student-faculty basketball game was still covered. His employer, the school, was benefited by his participation, which showed initiative and concern for the students. Sometimes a work event is not explicitly mandatory, but it is clear that there is significant pressure to attend. Such an event might still be “in the course of employment.” Often, however, work parties are not in the course of employment, because they are strictly voluntary and because it is the employees, rather than the employer, who benefits.

I Was Doing Something Outside My Assigned Job Tasks. Can My Injury Still Be Covered?

If you are injured while on a “personal mission” unconnected with employment, then your injury was not “in the course of employment.” But it's not always black-and-white whether what you were doing was completely unconnected with employment. The test, probably familiar by now, is what is reasonable and expected of employees in your position. For example, a worker who had just clocked out from her job in the bakery of a supermarket decided to do some personal shopping at the store. While she was shopping, she was injured. Because it was on the employer's premises, and because personal shopping immediately after her shift “is to be anticipated” and was “reasonably incidental to her employment,” she was still covered by Worker's Compensation.

Sometimes the test is whether your “personal mission” benefits the employer in some way. A mechanic was working on his own vehicle at his employer's garage during a break. Because his presence in the garage allowed him to be able to more quickly serve customers than if he had left the premises, his “personal mission” was still sufficiently connected to his employment to be covered under Worker's Compensation.

Often, a “personal mission” brings an injured worker outside of the course of employment and is no longer covered. An employee left her shift, got in her car, and drove back to the entrance of her workplace to give a co-worker a ride home, as a favor. Because this favor was not requested, or expected, by the employer, and because the favor did not directly benefit the employer, she was no longer “in the course of her employment.”

Confused? Get help.

The issue of whether an injury was sustained in the course of employment is one that threatens a lot of Worker's Compensation claims. Many claims get denied for this very reason. These issues can be complicated and are often hotly contested. Finding a professional who can help you with your claim can do more than just secure your benefits, it can give you peace of mind. If you are unfamiliar with the inner workings of the Worker's Compensation Commission, or what kind of paperwork you are supposed to do, consider contacting our law firm. We are happy to offer assistance to help you through the process.  

Sources

Kent v. Virginia-Carolina Chem. Co., 143 Va. 62, 129 S.E. 330 (1925)

Bradshaw v. Aronovitch, 170 Va. 329, 196 S.E. 684 (1938)

Raven Red Ash Coal Co. v. Griffith, 181 Va. 911, 27 S.E.2d 360 (1943)

Brown v. Reed, 208 Va. 562, 565, 165 S.E.2d 394, 397 (1969)

Bristow v. Cross, 210 Va. 718, 720–21, 173 S.E.2d 815, 817 (1970)

GATX Tank Erection Co. v. Gnewuch, 221 Va. 600, 272 S.E.2d 200 (1980)

Tinsley v. Courtland Mfg. Co., 63 O.I.C. 351 (1984)

Wilson v. First Assembly of God Church, 67 O.I.C. 93 (1988)

Briley v. Farm Fresh, Inc., 240 Va. 194, 296 S.E.2d 835 (1990)

Sentara Leigh Hosp. v. Nichols, 13 Va. App. 630, 414 S.E.2d 426 (1992)

Hunton & Williams v. Gilmer, 20 Va. App. 603, 460 S.E.2d 235, 235 (1995)

Norfolk Cmty. Hosp. v. Smith, 33 Va. App. 1, 531 S.E.2d 576 (2000)

Whitlow v. Franklin (County Of) Sch. Bd., VWC File No. 237-62-85 (2009)

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