As a result of social distancing in the midst of COVID-19, employees are working remotely now more than ever. One of the many unique challenges facing employers as a result of the increased number of employees working from the confines of their homes is the ever-present risk that an employee could be injured while conducting work-related tasks. Employers and their insurers must be aware that, under certain circumstances, injuries suffered by employees in their domiciliary “workplaces” could be compensable under workers’ compensation laws—even if any personal, non-work related components of the employee’s work-from-home arrangement contribute to the injury.
Under Kentucky law, employees are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits if they suffer an injury “arising out of and in the course of employment” (1). Courts of the Commonwealth have stated that the terms “arising out of” employment refers to the cause of the injury (which must be related to occupational duties), while the phrase “in the course of employment” refers to the time, place, and circumstances of the accident leading to the injury (2). No Kentucky court has squarely examined whether an injury to an employee occurring within the employee’s home workspace “aris[es] out of and in the course of employment.” But, based on Kentucky courts’ liberal interpretation of the Kentucky workers’ compensation statutes, taken together with court decisions from other states, it is certainly possible that a court deciding the issue could award an employee workers’ compensation benefits for an injury suffered by the employee while working from home.
Public policy in Kentucky dictates that courts should liberally construe the workers’ compensation statutes “in a manner that is consistent with their beneficent purpose” (3). To this end, the “primary purpose of the Workers’ Compensation Act is to aid injured or deceased workers” (4). This policy generally favors injured employees. In fact, judges have afforded employees the benefit of the doubt even if a non-work related factor contributes to the injury, holding in workers’ compensation cases involving both work-related and non-work-related causes of injuries that “the law does not weigh the importance of the two causes but considers whether the employment was a contributing factor” (5). So, if an employee breaks his or her hip after tripping over a toy truck laying in the living room floor while on the way to answer a work-related call, a court could very well skew its analysis in the employee’s favor on a subsequent workers’ compensation claim.
Case law in other jurisdictions supports this conclusion. Although workers’ compensation laws vary from state to state, most states require an injury to arise “in the course of employment” for an injury to be compensable. In this vein, courts in other states have held that one’s home can satisfy the “time, place, and circumstance” prong for purposes of determining whether an injury arose “in the course of employment” (6). Courts have been more likely to rule in an employees’ favor in this regard where the employee regularly works at home, the employee maintains work equipment at home, and/or it is necessary for the employee to work from home (which oftentimes has been the case throughout this coronavirus pandemic) (7).
Most jurisdictions also require some work-related factor to cause an employees’ injury in order for the injury to be compensable under workers’ compensation laws. Causation is fact-intensive and depends on the circumstances of the case. Case law suggests that courts are generally inclined to award workers’ compensation benefits where the circumstances show that even a minor occupational hazard contributes to an employee’s work-from-home injury. For instance, a Pennsylvania court found that an employee who fell down the stairs and suffered head and neck injuries after leaving her kitchen to answer a work-related phone call in her basement—where she maintained a home office where she worked two days a week—suffered the injuries “in the course and scope of her employment,” thus entitling her to workers’ compensation benefits (8). Similarly, in Sandberg v. JC Penney Co., Inc., the Court of Appeals of Oregon awarded workers’ compensation benefits to a custom decorator who was injured after she tripped and fell over her dog while walking to her garage where she stored fabrics to sell to customers (9). These two cases hinged on the courts’ respective interpretations of state workers’ compensation statutes requiring an injury to arise out of and in the course of employment—both of which read almost verbatim like KRS 342.011(1) (10). It stands to reason that a Kentucky court, despite the absence of on-point Kentucky precedent to date, could come down on this issue in the same manner.
- KRS 342.0011(1).
- Draper v. Ry. Accessories Co., 189 S.W.2d 934, 937 (Ky. 1945).
- Webster Cty. Coal Corp. v. Lee, 125 S.W.3d 310, 315 (Ky. App. 2003).
- Kentucky Uninsured Emp’rs Fund v. Hoskins, 449 S.W.753, 762 (Ky. 2014) (quoting Zurich Am. Ins. Co. v. Brierly, 936 S.W.2d 561, 563 (Ky. 1996)).
- Jefferson Cty. Pub. Sch./Jefferson Cty. Bd. of Educ. v. Stephens, 208 S.W.3d 862, 866 (Ky. 2006).
- Hille v. Gerald Records, 295 N.Y.S.2d 645, 648 (N.Y. 1968); Schwan Food Co. v. Frederick, 211 A.3d 659, 662 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2019).
- Verizon Pennsylvania, Inc. v. W.C.A.B. (Alston), 900 A.2d 440, 447 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2006)
- 260 P.3d 495, 500 (Or. Ct. App. 2011).
- Or. Rev. Stat. § 656.055; 77 Pa. Stat. § 411.