The phrase “no risk, no reward” is especially relevant in workers’ compensation, where risk is central to a compensable injury. 2020 was a landmark year for a long list of reasons, including the analysis of risk in Illinois. In wake of the recent Illinois Supreme Court decision, McAllister v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation (2020 IL. 124848), employers face new challenges in conducting the risk analysis, with a heavy emphasis on understanding job duties. The dramatic increase in work-from-home since the COVID-19 pandemic adds a new layer of complexity to the risk analysis, with the employer having far less evidence of how an alleged injury occurred.
Many work-from-home accidents will go unwitnessed, minimizing opportunities for initial investigation and potentially diminishing viable accident disputes at the inception of a claim. On the other hand, at-home injuries should theoretically decrease an employer’s workers’ compensation liability overall. For example, the notorious winter season of icy slip and falls in the parking lot will go to the wayside as employees start and end the workday at home. Employees can navigate their homes with ease, cutting out traditional workplace hazards.
As always, an injury in Illinois must arise out of and in the course of the employment. This remains true even when an injury occurs at home. Where an employer can reasonably expect its employees to perform the tasks necessary for carrying out their job duties at their personal residences, the claimant’s election to complete work tasks at home does not remove the injury from the realm of compensability. Bolingbrook Police Dept v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Comm’n, 2015 Ill. App. 3d 130869WC.
Per the recent decision in McAllister, if the risk is an employment risk, the neutral risk analysis does not need to be performed. An employment risk should still be easy to identify, even when an injury occurs at home. For example, if the injured worker is required to lift work items at home, an injury sustained while lifting the work item will most likely be considered an employment risk. In Bolingbrook, the Petitioner, a police officer, sustained injury while lifting a 40-pound duty bag in his car prior to leaving his home for work. The accident was found to be compensable, with the Appellate Court noting that the employer sanctioned the officers to safekeep the duty bag at home. The Petitioner’s conduct, the Appellate Court reasoned, directly furthered the employer’s interests. In James Hopkins v. Proctor & Gamble (85 IIC 3), the Petitioner’s accident was found to be compensable when he tripped on a curb on the way back from a promotional meeting to his home office. The Petitioner was running in the rain while carrying work-related items. Working from home was Company policy, and the Court reasoned that Petitioner was required to perform the duty of carrying items to complete his day.
Neutral risk at-home injuries are murkier to assess, especially in light of McAllister. In Graff v. Family Hospice, the petitioner was a registered nurse who was on call for the employer at her home at the time of the injury. In the process of walking to her front door, Petitioner realized she had left her clipboard on the kitchen table. When she turned, she twisted her left ankle. See 14 IWCC 0699. The floor that the petitioner was on was carpeted, there were no foreign substances on it and the petitioner did not trip over anything specific. The Arbitrator denied the claim and the Commission affirmed the decision. The Court reasoned that the risk to which Petitioner was exposed was a neutral risk, and that she was not exposed to such risk to a greater degree than the general public.
In order for an injury to be found compensable, the Petitioner must also prove that the injury occurred in the course of the employment, and an at-home injury does not disqualify a Petitioner from benefits. In general, “[i]njuries sustained at a place where a claimant might reasonably have been while performing his work duties are deemed to have been received in the course of his employment.” See Nee v. Ill. Workers’ Comp. Comm’n, 2015 IL App (1st) 132609WC.
Employers cannot oversee workplace safety at the employee’s personal residence. When an at-home injury is reported, a recorded statement should be taken to chronicle the mechanism of injury and identify witnesses. Careful attention should be paid to contemporaneous medical records. The employer should check-in with the employee to ensure that the employee is receiving appropriate and good quality medical care for a safe return to work.
The case law for at-home injuries is expected to grow and develop in the coming months and years. If you need any assistance in navigating an injury that occurred at an employee’s personal residence, please reach out to our attorneys at Nyhan, Bambrick, Kinzie & Lowry.