Workers’ compensation: Is an injury just outside the office compensable?

The fact that an injury occurs on a public sidewalk outside the place of business does not automatically negate compensation under workers compensation.

A threshold question in any workers compensation claim is whether there is a covered injury, that is, whether the injury arose out of and in the course of employment. Often, this question is simple where an accident occurs on the actual premises of an employer while the employee is engaged in the duties assigned to him or her. Also, as a general rule, an injury is not in the course of employment if it occurs off premises while an employee is coming to or going from the workplace. This is called the "coming and going" rule and exempts injuries caused from risks that all members of the public are generally exposed to. While the rule may sound simple, its application is anything but. Consider two recent New York decisions applying the rule.

Exploring the gray area

In the first case, Trotman v. New York State Courts, a court officer was arriving to work at the government center when he slipped and fell on ice that had accumulated on a sidewalk near the center. While the court restated the general principle that accidents that occur on a public street away from the place of employment and outside working hours generally are not considered to arise out of and in the course of employment, the court also acknowledged that a "gray area" exists when such an accident occurs near an employee's place of employment. The mere fact that it occurred on a public sidewalk did not, the court held, automatically negate compensation under the workers' compensation law. Instead, the court looks at whether there was a special hazard at the off-premise point at which the accident occurred and the close association of the access route to the work premises. In this case, the court determined that the ice was a danger to any passerby who walked on the sidewalk and did not bear any relation to his employment. The court denied workers' compensation benefits.

However, change the facts a bit and the result can be different. In another recent case, Employer: NYS Higher Education Serv Corp, the workers compensation board delved into the same gray area and applied the same principles where an employee was injured while walking on a public street one block away from her workplace during her 15-minute coffee break. While acknowledging that such a break is a "recreational activity," the board found that such breaks are considered to be so closely related to the performance of the job that they do not constitute an interruption of employment and the employee was not on a personal mission. The claimant in this case was awarded workers' compensation benefits.

Seeking an attorney's assistance

As these cases illustrate the application of the "coming and going" rule and its exceptions can be complex, and require a thorough examination of the facts of any specific case and a thorough knowledge of New York precedent. Any worker who has suffered an off-site injury should immediately seek the advice of an experienced New York workers' compensation attorney.

Keywords: injury, at work, outside the office, covered injury, workers' compensation, coming and going rule, recreational activity, New York