The state’s highest court recently ruled that the Workers’ Compensation Act covers telecommuters injured while working from home, but only if the injury arises out of and occurs in the course of employment. The Tennessee Supreme Court went on to find that an employee who was attacked by a neighbor in her home office was not entitled to benefits because her injuries did not arise out of her employment. Moreover, according to the court, the “street risk” doctrine did not apply to this case because the employee’s injuries were not causally connected with the nature of the employment. Wait v. Travelers Indemnity Company of Illinois, No. M2007-00099-SC-R3-WC, Supreme Court of Tennessee (November 16, 2007).

Factual Background

Kristina Wait was employed by the American Cancer Society (ACS) and worked out of her East Nashville home because of ACS’s lack of office space at its Nashville facilities. ACS furnished Wait with the necessary office equipment, including a printer and a facsimile machine. It also provided her with a telephone line and a budget to purchase office supplies. In addition, Wait’s supervisor and co-workers had attended meetings at the office in Wait’s house.

On September 3, 2004, Wait was in her kitchen making lunch when a neighbor, Nathaniel Sawyers, knocked on her door. Wait invited Sawyers in. He stayed for a short time, left, but returned a moment later, telling Wait that he had left his keys in her kitchen. When Wait turned away from the door, Sawyers followed her in and brutally assaulted her without provocation. As a result, Wait suffered severe injuries, including head trauma, a severed ear, broken bones, stab wounds, strangulation injuries, and permanent nerve damage.

In December of 2005, Wait filed a complaint seeing workers’ compensation benefits for the injuries she sustained in the assault. The chancery court granted summary judgment in favor of ACS’s insurer, Travelers Indemnity Company of Illinois. Wait appealed and the Tennessee Supreme Court accepted review before the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel considered the case.

Legal Analysis

According to Tennessee’s Workers’ Compensation Act, an injury is compensable if it both arises out of and occurs in the course of employment. An injury occurs in the court of employment, the court noted, “when it takes place within the period of the employment, at a place where the employee reasonably may be, and while the employee is fulfilling work duties or engaged in doing something incidental thereto.” Although Wait was preparing lunch when she suffered injuries, the court found that she was engaged in a permissible personal break incidental to her employment.

The court reasoned that since Wait’s work site was within her home, her kitchen was comparable to the kitchen and break rooms at traditional work sites. Moreover, the court ruled that unless an employer instructed otherwise, a telecommuting employee who briefly admits an acquaintance into his or her home “does not necessarily depart so far from her work duties so as to remove her from the course of her employment.” Since Wait was assaulted at a place where her employer could reasonably expect her to be, the court concluded that she sustained her injuries during the course of her employment. The court next turned to the issue of whether Wait’s injuries arose out of her job duties with ACS, that is, whether it emanated from a danger or risk inherent to her employment. The court noted that Wait’s assault resulted from a “neutral force” in that it was a random assault that was not personal and was initiated by someone outside of the employment relationship. Since neutral force attacks don’t present a clear causal connection with employment, courts must examine the particular facts and circumstances of the employment. This causal connection can be supplied, the court found, under the “street risk” doctrine, according to which employees exposed to the hazards of the street are at risk incident to and inherent in their employment.

In Wait’s case, the court concluded that Sawyers neither targeted her nor singled her out because of her association with ACS. Moreover, the court found it relevant that Wait was not charged with safeguarding her employer’s property and that she was not advancing ACS’s interest when she admitted Sawyers into her home. Thus, the court concluded that the street risk doctrine did not provide the necessary causal connection between Wait’s injuries and her employment. Therefore, her injuries did not arise out of her employment and thus, were not compensable.

In arriving at this conclusion, the court also made note of the boundaries of the “street risk” doctrine. According to the court, in the case of an employee who suffers a “neutral assault” at either the employer’s home office or corporate premises “the ‘street risk’ doctrine will not provide the required causal connection between the injury and the employment unless the proof fairly suggests either the attacker singled out the employee because of his or her association with the employer or that the employment indiscriminately exposed the employee to dangers from the public.”

Practical Impact

According to Bill Rutchow, a shareholder in Ogletree Deakins’ Nashville office, “with this case, the Tennessee Supreme Court settled the question of whether employees working from home are covered by the Workers’ Compensation Act, and the court set the boundaries for determining that coverage. It is likely that if the injury in this case had been from a more foreseeable source, such as a simple slip and fall, it would have been compensable. This ruling may lead to employers scaling back on work-at-home arrangements where they cannot monitor the health or safety risks that exist in an employee’s home.”