PA Supreme Court Addresses Requirement Injured Worker Had To Be On Employer’s Premises At Time Of Injury

As our loyal readers know by now, an injury in Pennsylvania is covered by the PA Workers’ Compensation Act (Act) if the injury is suffered “in the furtherance of the employer’s business or affairs, regardless of whether the injury occurred on the employer’s premises” [presuming the employee is not subject to a different workers’ compensation scheme, such as the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA), Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), or The Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (LHWCA), just to name a few].

We have also seen situations when a work injury is covered by the Act, even if the injured worker is not actually furthering the employer’s business or affairs, if other criteria are met.  More specifically, the injured worker in such a situation must be: “(1) injured on premises occupied or under the control of the employer, (2) required by the nature of his employment to be present on the premises; and (3) sustained injuries caused by the condition of the premises or by operation of the employer’s business or affairs thereon.”

A recent decision by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, O’Rourke v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Gartland), dealt with this issue, though in a very bizarre fact pattern.  The injured worker was employed, nominally, by her 33 year-old son, through a state-funded program under the Department of Public Welfare (DPW), to provide attendant care, necessitated by his long-term drug use.  The son (as Employer) was to receive 64 hours of care each week (note that he did not qualify to receive nighttime or 24-hour care).  The mother (Claimant/Employee) allowed her son to live with her, though this was not required by the DPW arrangement.  One night, after she went to bed, her son viciously stabbed her.

Since the mother was rendered disabled by the stabbing, she filed a Claim Petition, alleging that she was injured in the scope and course of her employment.  After reviewing the evidence, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the Claim Petition.  Though the mother was not actually helping her son (the Employer) at the time, the WCJ found that “her employment required her to be on the employer’s premises at the time that she sustained her injuries.”

This decision, however, was reversed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).    The WCAB found that the mother had completed her work duties and gone to bed, and that her job did not require her to be present in the home.  Neither 24 hour care, nor nighttime care, was part of her job duties.

Interestingly, the decision of the WCAB was reversed by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, which reinstated the granting of the Claim Petition by the WCJ.  Ultimately, the Court concluded that Claimant was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, since she was “’practically required’ to live on the premises by the nature of her employment.”  The Court applied a rarely used concept known as the “bunkhouse rule” (which comes into play when the injured worker is required by the nature of the situation to live on the employer’s premises).

Continuing the roller coaster history of this litigation, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania  accepted appeal (remember, unlike the lower courts in PA, the Supreme Court of PA only accepts those appeals it so desires).  And, in one final twist, the Court reversed the decision rendered by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, finding that it was the WCAB who issued the correct decision (finding that the mother was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits in this unique and tragic situation).  Since night-time care was not part of the job, the mother was not “required” by the job to be on the premises.  Further, it was not the Employer here providing the premises to the Employee, but the opposite (mother allowed son to stay at her house).  This takes the case out of the “bunkhouse rule” situation, and takes the entitlement to workers’ comp benefits away from Claimant.

While we are always fighting for the rights of the injured worker, on these facts, it is difficult to say that the Claimant was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.  Though the situation is no doubt both sad and tragic, the Supreme Court quoted a previous case in noting, “the Act was not intended to make the employer an insurer of its employees’ lives and health.”