Special Alert—COVID-19 and Work-from-Home Claims in Florida

In Florida, this issue was recently front and center in Sedgwick CMS v. Valcourt-Williams, 270 So.3d 1133 (Fla. 1st DCA 2019), where the First District Court of Appeal issued a rare en banc decision. Here, Valcourt-Williams, a worker’s compensation claims adjuster, worked remotely from her home in Arizona. During a break, she reached for a coffee cup in her kitchen and fell over her dog. The employer denied the claim, contending the injuries did not arise out of the employment. The judge of compensation claims deemed the injury compensable, concluding that the work-from-home arrangement meant the employer “imported the work environment into the claimant’s home and the claimant’s home into the work environment.” The employer appealed, and the First DCA reviewed the case de novo regarding the judge’s application of law to the undisputed facts.

The First DCA stated that the question is not whether a claimant’s home environment becomes her work environment, but whether the employment—wherever it is—“necessarily exposes a claimant to conditions which substantially contribute to the risk of injury.” In this case, the relevant risk was the claimant’s fall over her dog while reaching for a coffee cup in her kitchen. The First DCA held that this non-occupational risk exists whether the claimant is at home working or whether she is at home not working, and because the risk did not arise out of the employment, the First DCA reversed the judge’s ruling.

The First DCA said that the issue is whether the separate element of “arising out of” the employment is met. An accidental injury or death arises out of employment if work performed in the course and scope of employment is the major contributing cause of the injury or death. Section 440.02(36), Fla. Stat.; Strother v. Morrison Cafeteria, 383 So.2d 623, 628 (Fla. 1980). An accident is compensable only if “the employment necessarily expose[d] claimant to a condition that would substantially contribute to the risk of injury and to which the claimant would not normally be exposed during his non-employment life.” Acker v. Charles R. Burklew Const., 654 So.2d 1211, 1212 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995). The court said that compensability turns on whether the employment led to the risk—whether there was “occupational causation” pursuant to Section 440.02(36).

Here, the court stated that there was no such risk. Rather, the “features” of her non-employment life—her dog, her kitchen, her reaching for a coffee cup—caused the accident. After expressing concern over the precedent that would follow by deeming this accident compensable, the court then acknowledged that prior decisions have “overlooked or ignored” the statutory “arising out of” limitation and that it has not always been consistent in the application of same. It even went so far as to highlight some of the prior decisions that do not fall in line with this decision. They left off by saying, “If any ambiguity remains, we hope to remove it now: For any injury to be compensable, it must ‘arise out of’ the employment; there must be—as the statute says—‘occupational causation’.”

Note that two very strong dissenting opinions rendered by Judges Bilbrey and Makar. Judge Bilbrey expressed great concern about employers being subject to civil liability. Both judges pointed out that the majority opinion bucks decades of precedent regarding the personal comfort doctrine. They felt that the claimant had a compensable trip and fall accident because it occurred during work hours, in her workplace, when she fell over personal property while attending to a personal comfort.

So what do we take away from this case? First, in the new era of technology, which allows more and more employees to work from home, this case will have a significant impact on the issue of compensability of injuries that occur at home. Second, there is a concern over liability exposure for employers when those cases are denied. Future cases are likely going to be handled on a case-by-case basis due to their fact-specific nature. It is also a reminder to employers to review their work-from-home arrangements to ensure that employees are informed and safe. Lastly, this case could change the way we approach the “arising out of” analysis in that it changes course from prior cases.



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