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Volunteer injured in crash eligible for workers comp

Volunteer injured in crash eligible for workers comp

A search-and-rescue volunteer who was injured on his way to a meeting with local fire chiefs is eligible to receive workers compensation benefits, a Colorado appellate court has ruled.

Michael Smith is president and incident commander for Teller County, Colorado, Search and Rescue, a nonprofit agency that provides rescue services, according to court records. Volunteers for the organization receive no compensation and are on-call at all times.

Mr. Smith left his home in Florissant, Colorado, to go to a meeting of fire chiefs in Divide in May 2013, and he notified Teller County dispatch that he was en route to the meeting, according to court filings. Mr. Smith was severely injured when an approaching vehicle struck his vehicle head-on while traveling.

Mr. Smith filed a claim for workers comp benefits, saying that met the definition of an “employee” under Colorado's law. Teller County, which is insured in a municipal workers comp pool, denied Mr. Smith's claim after finding that it was not mandatory for him to attend the fire chief meeting.

A Colorado administrative law judge found that Mr. Smith was injured while “actively engaged in duties that would constitute activities that are 'proper for the performance' of duties with the search-and-rescue organization,” according to filings. Additionally, the judge ruled that Mr. Smith was responsible for coordinating assignments and attending meetings across Colorado in his role as president and commander of the organization.

The judge, therefore, awarded benefits to Mr. Smith as an employee of Teller County, and the Colorado Industrial Claim Appeals Office upheld that ruling. The county government appealed, arguing that Mr. Smith was not performing any duties for the organization when he was injured and that his claim should be barred under Colorado's “coming and going” rule.

But a three-judge panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the lower court rulings on Thursday. The appellate court noted that Colorado's workers comp law defines employees as including “volunteer rescue teams or groups, volunteer disaster teams, volunteer ambulance teams or groups and volunteer search teams.”

The appellate court also found that it was improper to apply Colorado's coming-and-going rule, which excludes workers comp compensability for injuries that occur when an employee is commuting to or from a job.

“From the commander's testimony and the (administrative law judge's) factual findings, it is clear that attending these meetings comprised a great deal of claimant's time and involvement as president of (Teller County Search and Rescue). Under the circumstances, we conclude that claimant's attendance at the fire chiefs meeting, including travel to the meeting, was contemplated as part of claimant's duties,” the appellate court ruled.

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