A state appeals court ruled Wednesday that a western Pennsylvania woman who was paid to help care for her disabled adult son in her home deserves workers’ compensation after he tried to kill her by slashing her throat while she slept.
Commonwealth Court overturned a decision by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and said the business relationship between Laura O’Rourke and her son Joshua Gartland met standards for benefits.
According to the court ruling, O’Rourke agreed to work for Gartland – after his leg was amputated in 2007 – under a government-funded program for home health care.
O’Rourke was sleeping at about 1 a.m. on April 11, 2009, when Gartland cut her throat with a butcher knife and inflicted other injuries. She suffered a loss of function in her left arm and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Gartland pleaded guilty to attempted homicide, aggravated assault and other charges in Westmoreland County and is currently incarcerated in a state prison, court records show.
The Commonwealth Court majority said that O’Rourke was “practically required” to live with her son as part of her employment, she was hurt at the work location and her injuries were caused by the business of caring for him.
The decision cited a 1924 case in which a coal company that had reopened after a strike allowed its workers to live in a bunkhouse on the property. When a bomb was thrown into the window of the bunkhouse and three people were killed, the state denied benefits because the victims were not required to be on their employer’s premises at the time of the explosion.
But the state Supreme Court ruled benefits were warranted when the nature of employment, on a practical basis, demands that the employee be there.
“Our decision to include scenarios of this nature is entirely consonant with the facts and underlying rationale of (the 1924 case), where employees were not contractually obligated to live in the employer’s bunkhouse, had no reasonable alternative than to live in the bunkhouse, and their presence in the bunkhouse was to the employer’s advantage,” wrote Judge Patricia McCullough.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter said she would have denied O’Rourke benefits.
“In the middle of the night, a young man stabbed his mother with a butcher knife while she lay sleeping in her own bed, in her own home,” Leadbetter wrote. “I believe it defies logic to call this a work related injury.”
Messages, seeking comment, left for lawyers for O’Rourke and Gartland were not returned.
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