Employee’s injuries while walking to off-site training do not get workers comp benefits

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Does an injury from tripping over tree roots qualify for Virginia workers compensation benefits? If the tripping occurred while away from the workplace, it may be more difficult to prove the case. However, where the employer requires training at another location, the Virginia Workers Compensation Commission may decide that the injuries from the fall are compensable and to be covered by the employer’s insurance company. In a recent case where an employee was injured when she tripped and fell over tree roots while walking to mandatory training program held off-site, and the employer had not provided her instructions regarding what route to take to get to the program, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that her injuries did not arise out of her employment and she was therefore not entitled to compensation.

FACTS:

In August of 2016, the employer was employed as licensed professional counselor. As part of her employment, she was required to attend a mandatory training at a community college, off-site. As she was walking to the building where the training was held, she stepped over a curb onto a grassy area. She did not notice the exposed tree roots protruding from the ground and she tripped twice and fell over, sustaining injuries to her face, head, right shoulder, right wrist, right hand, neck and lower back regions.

Off-site injuries pose tricky legal issues for workers hurt on the job. Just because they are “on the clock” does not mean that they automatically win their workers comp claim.

The injured employee filed workers compensation Applications for benefits seeking lifetime medical and temporary total disability benefits. During the Hearing before the Deputy Commissioner (workers comp trial judge) she agreed that she was not told where to park or assigned parking for the training. She also stated that there were other available routes to the building in which the training was to be held and that there was nothing defective about the sidewalk.

In a decision issued in May of 2017, the Deputy Commissioner found that the injured worker failed to demonstrate that her fall and resulting injuries arose out of a particular risk to her employment because her attendance at the program was insufficiently linked to her traversing over the specific grassy area with raised roots that caused her to trip and fall. The disabled worker then sought review from the Full Commission.

The Full Commission reversed the Deputy Commissioner’s opinion, finding that, because this worker was required to attend the training, she was in the course of her employment until she returned to home. The Virginia Workers Compensation Commission (“VWC”) remanded (sent back) the case to the Deputy Commissioner for further findings regarding the extent of her causally related injuries and treatment.

The Deputy Commissioner found that this injured worker had suffered compensable injuries to her right hand, right shoulder, right wrist, head and neck and that all of her treatment was reasonable, necessary and causally related to the accident. The Full Commission in Richmond affirmed. The employer’s lawyers then appealed the case to the Virginia Court of Appeals.

LEGAL ANALYSIS:

The concepts “arising out of” and “in the course of” are not synonymous and both conditions must be proven before compensation will be awarded. In this case, there is no question that the disabled worker sustained injuries due to an accident that occurred in the course of her employment. The sole issue is whether her injuries arose out of her employment.

An accident arises out of the employment when there is a causal connection between the claimant’s injury and the conditions under which the employer requires the work to be performed. To establish such causation, the danger to which the employee was exposed must be unique to the employment and not common to the neighborhood.

Here, although the training was mandatory, the city did not tell this employee where to park or what route to use to get to the building where the training was held. As such, her risk of tripping over tree roots was equal to that of any member of the general public walking on the unpaved area adjacent to the sidewalk. The fact that she was mandated to be on campus by her employer did not create a causal relationship between a special risk of her employment and her injury. Her injuries were, therefore, not compensable.

In a 2019 unpublished opinion, the Virginia Court of Appeals reversed the Full Commission and found in favor of the employer in the case of City of Virginia Beach v. Hamel. If you or someone you care about has been injured at work, and there are questions as to how best to proceed, please call us at (703)-796-9555 or contact us via e-mail at frontdesk@LandauLawShop.com