PA Workers’ Comp Benefits Properly Awarded for Rescue Effort

One of the more common areas of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (Act) seen in appellate cases is the issue of whether an injured worker was in the scope and course of his or her employment at the time of the injury. This is often a very fact-specific inquiry. Recently, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania addressed whether an injured worker abandoned his work duties at the time of the injury.

The facts of the case in Pipeline Systems, Inc. and Continental Western Insurance Company v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Pounds) are not in dispute. The injured worker was doing his job installing pipeline when he heard cries of help from a pit about 30 feet away. He rushed over to the pit where an employee of a different company had fallen. In an attempt to rescue the fallen employee, the injured worker descended into the pit. As the injured worker was climbing a ladder out of the pit, he was overcome by methane fumes and fell, hurting his left leg, knee, foot, ribs, back and lungs.

The workers’ comp insurance carrier denied the claim, alleging that the injured worker had removed himself from the scope and course of his employment, by undertaking the rescue effort (a real class act, the insurance industry). In litigating the Claim Petition, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the Petition, despite finding that “Claimant was not required to be at, in or near the pit into which he fell, and that the person he assisted was not a co-worker, and that [Employer] was not responsible for the pit or work being done in the pit on the day Claimant was injured.” The granting of the Claim Petition was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).

On appeal to the Commonwealth Court of PA, the decision of the WCJ was again affirmed. As the Court noted, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the Act in 2003, providing that benefits are not to be denied to:

(10) An employe who, while in the course and scope of his employment, goes to the aid of a person and suffers injury or death as a direct result of any of the following:

(i) Preventing the commission of a crime, lawfully apprehending a person reasonably suspected of having committed a crime or aiding the victim of a crime. For purposes of this clause, the terms “crime” and “victim” shall have the same meanings as given to them in section 103 of the act of November 24, 1998 (P.L. 882, No. 111), known as the “Crime Victims Act.”
(ii) Rendering emergency care, first aid or rescue at the scene of an emergency. Section 601(a)(10)(i)-(ii) of the Act, added by Act of December 23, 2003, P.L. 371, 77 P.S. § 1031(a)(10)(i)-(ii).

Finding that the facts of this case fit squarely within part ii of this Section of the Act (601(10)(ii)), the Court explained that benefits were properly awarded. Benefits should not be denied on these facts any more than if an injured worker is hurt while taking a “temporary departure to administer to human comforts” (or, in English, going to the restroom). Specifically, the act of the injured worker did not “constitute an abandonment of employment by an employee or constitute acts that are inherently high risk so as to be wholly foreign to employment.” When the cry for help was heard, the injured worker was undisputedly within the scope and course of his job.

We applaud this decision and commend the Court for staying true to the word and the spirit of the Act, which is to be read in conjunction with its humanitarian objectives. The shameful position taken by the insurance carrier should be a key indication of the level to which the insurance industry will stoop in an effort to avoid a clear obligation to provide benefits. The truly sad thing here is that it took this much litigation to get benefits for such a brave and heroic act.