Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Court of Appeal Vindicates Firefighter's Workers' Comp Rights

Where does the personal end and the legally compensable begin? In Richard Warner v. W.C.A.B. et al., California’s Second Appellate District recently had a chance to weigh in on this crucial workers’ comp question as it relates to a work-from-home firefighter.

Richard Warner is a Los Angeles County firefighter who works and lives on small, picturesque Santa Catalina Island. To ensure that the approximately 4,000 residents of the island have fire protection, LA County required Warner, along with one other firefighter, to live on the island. Warner’s house is both residence and partial workplace. Island denizens visit him there when they need his services, and he often responds to incident calls directly from home, without traveling to the island’s modest fire station.

In February of 2010, Warner’s wife asked him to help her trim the wisteria that grows wildly around their house. Warner, after falling off a ladder, injured his neck and his back, as well as his wrist, elbow, and shoulder on his left side.

The County tried, with initial success, to avoid paying disability or medical costs to Warner, under the claim that this injury was due to a personal act—a favor Mr. Warner did for his wife—rather than part of his employment obligations. The Workers’ Comp Appeals Board sided with the County, concluding that although Warner suffered his injury in the course of employment, it did not arise out of employment, because trimming the wisteria was something he did for private purposes.

The Second Appellate District overturned the Board and upheld Warner’s rights. The Court invoked the time-honored Dual Purpose Doctrine: if an action serves both personal and employment-related ends, it is an act which “arises out of work” for compensation purposes. There was no question that Warner worked from his home. It was equally incontestable that the County benefited from having this fire station-cum-residence be both easily accessible and aesthetically pleasing.

In other words, trimming the wisteria served both Warner’s ends and those of his boss—the fact that Warner acted at his wife’s request did not negate this fact. His employer must pay him workers’ comp.

The court’s decision is unpublished, but it nevertheless represents a significant vindication of the rights of workers in a time when they are under increasing attack. Workers’ comp exists to help those who are hurt serving their bosses’ interests. Employers who compel their subordinates to mingle duty and leisure should not be able to cry “Personal purposes!” when the same mingled deeds lead to mangled results.