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A Florida court has ruled an employee working from home who was hurt when she tripped over her dog while reaching for a coffee cup in her kitchen was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits because her injury did not “arise” out of her employment.

The Case

Tammitha Valcourt-Williams, a workers’ compensation claims adjuster for Sedgwick CMS, was allowed to work from her home. According to Valcourt-Williams, after working for three hours, she went downstairs for a cappuccino. As she reached for her cup, Valcourt-Williams said she fell over one of her two dogs and injured her knee, hip and shoulder.

Because she had a work-from-home arrangement and because her fall occurred during working hours, Valcourt-Williams sought workers’ compensation benefits.

Sedgwick denied the claim, contending Valcourt-Williams’ injuries did not arise out of her employment.

After a hearing, the Judge of Compensation Claims sided with  Valcourt-Williams. The JCC determined the injury was compensable because the work-from-home arrangement meant Sedgwick “imported the work environment into the claimant’s home and the claimant’s home into the work environment.”

Sedgwick appealed.

The parties agreed Valcourt-Williams’ injuries occurred in the course and scope of her employment since she was injured during work hours, her home was where she “would reasonably be” and her coffee break was a permissible “comfort break.” They disagreed as to whether the injury was “arising out of” her employment.

The Court’s Decision

The court reversed.

In its decision, the court explained an accidental injury or death “arises out of” employment if work performed in the course and scope of employment was “the major contributing cause” of the injury or death. To be compensable, the court said an injury must “arise out of employment in the sense of causation and be in the course of employment in the sense of continuity of time, space and circumstances.”

Put differently, the court said, the “arising out of” limitation required “that the risks that caused claimant’s accident and injuries be work-related.” An accident was compensable only if “the employment necessarily expose claimant to conditions that would substantially contribute to the risk of injury and to which the claimant would not normally be exposed during  non-employment life.”

In the court’s opinion, the issue was not whether Valcourt-Williams’ “home environment” was her “work environment” but whether her employment — wherever it was — necessarily exposed her to conditions that “substantially” contributed to the risk of injury.

The relevant risk was Valcourt-Williams might trip over her dog while reaching for a coffee cup in her kitchen. The court reasoned that risk existed whether Valcourt-Williams was at home working or whether she was at home not working. “It existed before Valcourt-Williams took her job, and it will exist after her employment ends (so long as she maintains a home with a dog).”

Finding no “occupational causation” in Valcourt-Williams’ case because features of Valcourt-Williams’ “non-employment life” — her dog, her kitchen, her reaching for a coffee cup — caused the accident, the court reversed.

The case is Sedgwick CMS v. Valcourt-Williams, No. 1D17-96 (Fla. Ct. App. April 5, 2019). Attorneys involved include: James N. McConnaughhay of McConnaughhay, Coonrod, Pope Weaver, & Stern,  Tallahassee, and Elizabeth V. Bogle, Pensacola, for appellants. Bill McCabe, Longwood, and Glen D. Wieland, Orlando, for appellee.

Steven A. Meyerowitz, a Harvard Law School graduate, is the founder and president of Meyerowitz Communications Inc., a law firm marketing communications consulting company. Mr. Meyerowitz is the director of the Insurance Coverage Law Center and editor-in-chief of journals on insurance law, banking law, bankruptcy law, energy law, government contracting law, and privacy and cybersecurity law, among other subjects. He may be contacted at smeyerowitz@meyerowitzcommunications.com.