With recent weather happenings leaving much of Ohio covered in varying degrees of snow, ice, and that all-too-familiar gray slush that ensues as it all melts, re-freezes, and melts again, now seems like a good time to discuss the workers’ compensation implications when employees get hurt trying to traverse this sometimes perilous terrain.
In Ohio, the basic rule of workers’ compensation is that it covers injuries sustained both in the course of and arising out of an injured worker’s employment. The question of whether an injury occurs in the course of employment focuses on the time, place, and circumstances of the injury, with benefits limited to those employees engaging in some essential job duty or function when injured. Moreover, for an injury to be considered as having arisen out of the employment, there must be a causal connection between the employee’s injury and his employment. This is a fact specific question that looks at the totality of the circumstances, especially with respect to the following three factors:
- The proximity of the scene of the accident to the place of employment
- The degree of control the employer had over the scene of the accident
- The benefit the employer received from the injured employee’s presence at the scene of the accident
For accidents that happen on the clock and in the building, such as a slip-and-fall on a wet floor due to melted ice and snow, the connection is relatively straightforward. Fault is generally not a part of the equation, so unlike premises liability cases, employees’ injuries are covered even when they occur as the result of “open and obvious” hazards—like a puddle of water with a “wet floor” sign next to it. Note: mops and wet floor signs are still recommended to help prevent injuries in the first place!
When an employee is injured in transit, the analysis is more complicated. For employees whose travel is an intrinsic part of their work duties—such as delivery drivers and traveling salespeople—injuries suffered during work-related trips are typically compensable. For employees who report to a fixed job site each day, on the other hand, Ohio courts have held that injuries sustained while traveling to or from work are generally not compensable. This is true even when the “fixed” workplace changes periodically, as long as the employee’s duties begin when they report to a specific job site designated by their employer. This is known as the “coming and going rule.” Consequently, any time that an employee sustains an injury while traveling, the first question is whether the employee is a fixed-site employee or a non-fixed-site employee. This can be a fuzzy distinction in some cases, often requiring a very fact-specific inquiry regarding the nature of the job and the nature of the travel.
That is not the only inquiry, though, as there are also exceptions to the coming and going rule even when it is clear that the employee is a fixed-site employee.
Under one such exception—the “special hazard” exception—fixed-site employees may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for injuries while traveling to or from work if they can establish that the employment created some unique risk that is distinct from what the general public experiences while traveling. Particularly long trips to a job site, rapidly changing job sites within a relatively small timeframe, or even just an extraordinarily dangerous intersection near the entrance to the job site are some examples of such special hazards.
Another exception to the coming and going rule may apply when a fixed-site employee is injured while within the “zone of employment,” even before or after their work shift. This exception is commonly raised in the context of parking lot injuries. Whether on foot or in the car, injuries occurring in the parking lot on or near the employer’s premises may be found to be compensable based on the degree of control the employer has over the parking lot. When an employer owns and maintains the lot where their employees park, injuries due to accidents there are typically found to be within the zone of employment and thus compensable.
Ultimately, despite the multitude of rules and exceptions and abundance of legal terminology on the subject, virtually all injuries while employees are traveling are subject to the same underlying analysis—a case-by-case examination of the “totality of the circumstances” focusing primarily on the degree of control the employer had over the scene of the accident and the benefit the employer derived from the employee being there. Due to the entirely fact-specific nature of this analysis, it is therefore especially important for employers to thoroughly investigate these types of injuries as soon as possible. Obtaining crash reports for motor vehicle accidents, conducting witness interviews, checking cell phone records to verify reported accident times, and even reviewing urgent care records for statements as to where the injury occurred and what the employee was doing when injured can all lead to the discovery of crucial evidence supporting a defense to a workers’ compensation claim based on the “totality of the circumstances.”