Workers’ Comp Claim Denied for Tenn. Telecommuter Assault Victim

November 26, 2007

The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that a telecommuter who was attacked while preparing lunch in her kitchen wasn’t entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for her injuries.

In the case of Kristina Wait v. Travelers Indemnity Co. of Illinois, the court ruled that while Wait’s injuries were suffered during the course of her employment, they did not arise out of her employment.

Due to lack of office space at its Nashville, Tenn., facilities, the American Cancer Society allowed Kristina Wait, senior director of Health Initiative and Strategic Planning to work from her East Nashville home from October 1998 until Sept. 3, 2004.

Wait sought workers’ compensation benefits after a neighborhood acquaintance assaulted her in her home where she had an employer-approved office.

According to the court’s factual background summary, Wait’s home office functioned as her work place “in all respects.” She performed her daily work for the ACS at her home office and her supervisor and co-workers attended meetings at Wait’s house. There is no record designating hours or conditions of employment, nature of her work space, or other work rules, however, the plaintiff’s work for the ACS did not require her to open her house to the public.

During working hours, according to the court document, the plaintiff locked the outside doors of her home and activated an alarm system for her protection, but on Sept. 3, 2004, Wait opened her door to a neighbor, Nathaniel Sawyers, who brutally assaulted and severely injured her.

In appealing a denial of an initial judgment, Wait argues that the injuries arose out of her employment because her work arrangement placed her in a position that facilitated the assault, and the injuries occurred in the course of her employment because she was engaged in a permissible incidental activity – taking a lunch break.

In the court’s analysis, Chief Justice William M. Barker pointed out that in Tennessee, and in many other jurisdictions, for an injury to be compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act, it must both “arise out of” and occur “in the course of” employment.

Travelers maintains that Wait’s injuries are not compensable because the plaintiff was not “fulfilling a work duty” in admitting Sawyers into her kitchen.

Even though the plaintiff’s injuries occurred “in the course of” her employment, Barker wrote that the court nevertheless holds that Wait’s injuries did not “arise out of” her job duties with the ACS. The phrase “arising out of” requires that a causal connection exist between the employment conditions and the resulting injury.

Chief Justice Barker delivered the opinion of the court, saying that Wait was engaged in a permissible incidental activity at her sanctioned work site when she was viciously attacked but the Chancery Court for Sumner County “correctly found that the injuries did not arise out of the plaintiff’s employment.”

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