A recent Vermont workers’ compensation decision involving a mental health worker and her unruly dog relied on an exception to the general “coming and going” rule and found that the worker’s injury “arose out of” and “in the course of” her employment and that her claim was covered under Vermont workers’ compensation laws. See Lopez v. The Howard Center.
The injured mental health worker, who self-directs her daily schedule, returned to her home at lunch- time to retrieve a book that she wanted to use in treating an afternoon client. She traveled directly to her home from work, got the book from her home and put it in her car. When she returned to her door to check to see if it was locked, her dog escaped into the backyard. She went to retrieve a ball to lure her dog back into the house, she tripped and fell and injured her right upper extremity.
Generally, an injury is not covered under workers’ compensation when the employee is injured while traveling to and from work unless the injury occurs on the employer’s premises. The exception to this rule involves traveling employees; those that have no fixed location for their job and those that are engaged in a special errand or business trip at the time of their injuries.
Of course, this being the law, there is an exception to the exception. If a traveling employee substantially deviates from the business purpose in order to pursue personal interests, the exception doesn’t apply and the injury is deemed not to be within the course of employment and not covered by workers’ compensation.
The Lopez decision applied the exception to the “coming and going” rule and found that she was engaged in a special errand when she went home to retrieve the book. It also applied the exception to the exception when she deviated from the business purpose of the special errand and checked to see if her door was locked and again when she tried to lure her dog inside.
The deviations did not prove fatal to the claim, however, and because the deviations were not “substantial” they did not take the injury out of the course of her employment. The workers’ compensation insurance carrier was ordered to pay benefits to the injured worker.
The facts of the Lopez case may be unusual enough to provide a legitimate question of whether the injury was work-related. But as workers’ compensation lawyers, we know that insurance companies routinely deny legitimate claims for their own financial benefit. We understand how frustrating it is to be hurt on the job and then have an insurance company deny your claim.
We have years of experience successfully fighting wrongful denials of workers’ compensation claims. The Lopez decision shows that, sometimes, the insurance company is barking up the wrong tree.
For more information see Miller v. IBM, Estate of Rollins v. Orleans Essex Visiting Nurses Assn., Opinion No. 19-01 (June 5, 2001).