‘Personal Comfort Doctrine’ Applies to Allow Pennsylvania Amputee’s Workers’ Comp Claim

By Denise Johnson | March 10, 2017

A Pittsburgh Airport ramp agent, who sustained a serious leg injury that required amputation, should receive workers’ compensation for her injury despite an insurer’s argument that the injury didn’t happen while she was on duty, according to an opinion issued by a judge that reviewed the case.

Modesty Colquitt’s job duties included driving a tug with a cart that was used to carry luggage, unloading and loading luggage on to planes and delivering bags to baggage claim. According to the opinion, most of her duties were completed near airplanes and at the belt where passengers retrieved luggage; however, occasionally she had to travel to the terminal to complete her job tasks.

On September 2, 2014, the 21 year old claimant arrived to work and realized she forgot her wallet as well as required feminine products. She called her mother who agreed to bring both to her work. Her mother arrived with several items and parked near the terminal. Claimant drove the tug to meet her mother and while en route the tug flipped and trapped her left leg. She was transported to the hospital via ambulance where her left leg was amputated below the knee.

The claimant filed a claim for workers’ comp. The employer issued a denial noting that the injury didn’t occur while in the scope of her work duties. The Workers Compensation Judge (WCJ) held a hearing where various witnesses said it was unnecessary for her mother to bring her wallet and feminine products because she was either offered them or they were available at work. Another witness, a coworker, testified the claimant was driving the tug too fast. The claimant testified that she had a supervisor’s permission to drive the tug to meet her mother. The WCJ found on behalf of the claimant, discounting the witnesses’ statements entirely, noting “that claimant’s temporary departure from performing work to administer to her personal needs did not take her out of the course of her employment.” It concluded that she remained in the course of employment pursuant to the “personal comfort doctrine,” which essentially holds that momentary departures from work routines to address personal comfort do not remove an employee from the course his or her work.

She was found to be totally disabled since the date of injury.

Starr appealed the decision which was later affirmed. As a result, Starr filed a petition for review with the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. The court affirmed the board’s decision. As to Starr’s claim that the WCJ didn’t consider the witnesses’ testimony, the Court disagreed, noting that the WCJ did consider it but discounted the testimony because it “pertained to collateral issues, i.e., whether it was necessary for Claimant to meet her mother.”

The case is Starr Aviation v. Workers Compensation Appeal Board (Colquitt)

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