Assaulted in a Home/Office: Compensable?

November 27th, 2007 by

Kristina Wait worked for the American Cancer Society in Nashville TN. Due to a lack of office space, she worked from home, in a converted bedroom/office set up by her employer. In September 2003, she was making lunch when the doorbell rang. She invited her neighbor, Nathaniel Sawyers, into her home. With no provocation, he brutally assaulted her, causing head trauma, broken bones, stab wounds and permanent nerve damage. (So much for “good neighbors”!)
Kristina filed a workers compensation claim, based upon the fact that she was “at work” and involved in a “work related activity” (making her lunch). The claim was denied by the carrier. Her appeal was dismissed on summary judgment and dismissed again by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The court agreed that her injuries arose “in the course and scope” of employment: she was indeed “at work.” However, her injuries did not “arise out of” employment. Mr. Sawyer did not come to her house on a work-related matter. Her relationship with him (a casual acquaintance) had nothing whatever to do with work. So the court rejected her claim for workers comp benefits.
Had she been covered by comp, Kristina would have had all of her medical bills paid from dollar one, with no co-pays or deductibles. Her future medical bills – which will be considerable – would also be covered. Her prescriptions would have been covered as well, again with no co-pays. And she would have collected indemnity (two thirds of her average weekly wage), retroactive to the date of injury. The world under the comp umbrella would have been a lot more secure than the one she is facing.
The court pointed out that even if Kristina had been in a conventional office setting, the assault might not have been compensable. Her (marginal or neutral) relationship with Sawyer had nothing at all to do with work. Her employer did not create the conditions that made the assault possible. (It’s probably fair to state that compensability is somewhat more likely if the assault occurs in a conventional work setting, as opposed to a home office.)
In a better world, we would all be protected by 24 hour coverage. In the world we inhabit, our coverage under workers comp is limited to the times we are working and covers only risks arising from our work. Coverage for telecommuters remains a gray area (which we have blogged before). For most of us, working in a home office would be the safest possible environment. For the unfortunate Kristina Wait, her home office was host to horrendous and unforeseen risks that had nothing at all to do with her work.