Where Does Employer Liability for Workplace Injuries in a Post-COVID World End? Liable at Work, but Not Off-Site?
June 15, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic and post-pandemic era saw an increase in the number of employees working from home. For employers, this raises questions of liability for injuries that occur while employees are working from home. Specifically, when does workers’ compensation coverage or deliberate intent coverage apply?
A New York appellate court recently discussed the applicability of workers’ compensation coverage in a work-from-home scenario. Matter of Capraro v. Matrix Absence Mgt., 2020 NY App. Div. LEXIS 6171 (3d Dept., Oct. 22, 2020) In that case, an employee who worked from home was injured when he was carrying boxes of office furniture upstairs to his home on his lunch hour. An Administrative Law Judge denied the employee's claim for workers' compensation coverage for his injuries finding that they did not arise out of and in the course of his employment. The appellate court reversed finding no requirement that the employee’s activity be performed at the employer’s direction or that the activity directly benefit the employer. Instead, the necessary inquiry was whether the personal activity was reasonable and sufficiently work related. The case was remanded to determine whether moving the boxes of office furniture was a purely personal activity that was not reasonable and sufficiently work related.
This case illustrates that courts may analyze work-from-home injuries with more scrutiny than on-the-jobsite workplace injuries. Ultimately, the inquiry is always whether the injury occurred in the course of and resulting from employment.
To avoid liability for work-from-home injuries, employers should establish boundaries and instructions for its employees in the at-home setting. For example, employers should ensure their at-home employees maintain regular work hours in order to limit the time frame during which potential injuries may occur. Additionally, employers should instruct at-home employees to set up their home office away from distractions and in an area that is safe from an ergonomic standpoint. The home office work space should be free from hazards of a potential slip, trip, or fall, like any other workplace.
Employers should also be mindful of the potential for intentional tort/deliberate intent claims. Such claims are possible in this type of work setting, but they will likely be more difficult for the employee to prove if the employer exerts control over the work environment to ensure it is safe.
In a recent California case, Colonial Van & Storage Inc. v. Superior Court, Calif. Ct. App., No. B317125 (March 18, 2022), an employee’s mentally ill son fired a handgun within the home at his family members, including his mother, and some of her co-workers who were inside the home for a work-related function. At the time of the shooting, a dinner party was occurring at the home, and co-workers were socializing and engaging in job-related tasks. The co-workers sued the employer and their host for injuries they sustained in the shooting.
The appellate court dismissed the claims finding an employer does not have a duty to protect at-home employees from third-party criminal conduct. The employer did not own the home and had no control over the property. Even though the employer received some commercial benefit from the home’s use as a worksite, imposing liability under those circumstances would make every employer liable for any injury suffered at home by employees. The existence of an employer/employee relationship did not create a duty in these circumstances where the shooting was not foreseeable.
It is unlikely that a court would hold employers liable for criminal conduct by third parties in at-home work situations. However, because the California appellate court's decision emphasized the lack of foreseeability of the incident, it is important for employers to assert some control over the at-home work of their employees. Employers should be aware of official work functions occurring off-site, including in an employee's home. Moreover, the employer must respond promptly if it becomes aware of a risk of violence or other potential liability related to employees working from home. At the very least, employers should instruct employees performing work at home to have a designated office space in their homes for work purposes where official business functions are performed. To the extent possible, the workspace should resemble an office setting with as few distractions and potential hazards as possible. Asserting some control over the safety of the home workspace will allow employers to limit potential intentional tort/deliberate intent claims.