May 1, 2020

By Edward M. Moriarty, Esq. at Moriarty & Associates, PC

Question presented:

Is an injury to an employee while working from home compensable?

Short answer:

An injury is compensable even if it occurs at home, if the employee at the time of the injury was engaged in the furtherance of her employer’s business or in pursuit of some benefit to her employer.  The employee must not be engaged in actual performance of her duties at the moment of injury, as long as her actions were incidental to and not inconsistent with her employment.

Long answer:

With the large number of employees working remotely during the COVID-19 outbreak, claims of injuries sustained while working from home are likely to increase.  In Massachusetts, the question of compensability is analyzed by determining whether an injury was arising out of and in the course of the employee’s employment. An injury may be sustained “in the course of employment” even though it occurs off the employer’s premises.  In addition, courts in Massachusetts, as in most other states, have ruled that employees who are injured while taking short breaks from work to seek personal comfort can be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. The universe of covered activities within the home is therefore quite large.

An instructive case is Butterworth v. Town of Winchester, Rev. Bd. #044246-05, Sept. 24, 2008.  In Butterworth, the Reviewing Board held that a tennis coach for the Winchester High School was eligible for benefits for an injury he received when he fell down his basement stairs on the way to his home office to telephone in the results of that day’s matches to the newspapers.

The Reviewing Board held that “the fact that a injury occurs at home does not necessarily mean it did not arise out of and in the course of employment.” Id. It is only required that the employee “was engaged in the furtherance of his employer’s business or in pursuit of some benefit to his employer.”  Id.  In Butterworth, the employee was on his way to perform a function of his job (telephoning in the results), but had not yet arrived at his home office.  Nevertheless, the Court held that an employee need not be engaged in the actual performance of his duties at the moment of injury.  Citing D’Angeli’s Case, 369 Mass. 819, 816 (1976), the Court held that “all that is require is that his activity be incidental to and not inconsistent with his employment.”  Cf. Larocque’s Case, 31 Mass. App. Ct. 657 (1991)(employee’s heart attack occurred 2 weeks after termination of employment and not in furtherance of the employer’s business).

The Court re-affirmed two older cases, which had held that an injuries that occurred while preparing an employee’s tools and a fall in a driveway on the way to a home office were both compensable.  See Soares Case, 270 Mass. 3 (1930); Cahill’s Case, 296 Mass. 538 (1836).  Cases relating to travelling employees or the Coming and Going Rule were determined not to be relevant.

While the employee in Butterworth was on his way to his home office after arriving at home from his coaching duties, injuries that happen during a personal comfort break would also likely be held to be compensable. In a Minnesota case, Munson v. Wilmar/Interline Brands, the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals held that an employee who was injured when descending the stairs to get a cup of coffee while working from his home office was entitled to benefits.  (Dec. 16, 2008, No. WC08-205.)  In that case it was important that the employee was working, performing duties required by the employer, and did not engage in any unreasonably dangerous or risky behavior.  The court found it no different than an employee working at the employer’s facility sustaining an injury while walking to the break room.

In determining compensability, it will be important to gather as many facts as possible about an employee’s claimed injury, including when and where it happened, what work they were performing immediately prior to the injury, and what other activities they had been doing.  Given the caselaw in Massachusetts and other states, it will likely be fairly easy for an employee to argue that any injury sustained inside their home during normal business hours is work related.