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Nurse injured while glancing at cell phone due workers comp: Virginia court

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SALEM, Va.—A nurse who momentarily glanced down at her cell phone to see if her employer was calling is entitled to workers compensation benefits for injuries suffered in an auto accident, the Court of Appeals of Virginia has ruled.

The 2-1 ruling in Wythe County Community Hospital and Travelers Indemnity Co. of America vs. Donna Turpin grew from a November 2009 accident on a mountainous road.

Ms. Turpin, a hospice nurse, worked on call during the weekends and court records show her employer mainly contacted her via pager. But when the pager didn't not work, which was common, her personal cell phone served as a backup contact means.

Consequently, she kept her cell phone in her front pocket while on call and she had instructed friends and family not to contact her during that time, but to contact her husband in case of an emergency.

Ms. Turpin's job also required her to drive her personal car, where she stored work supplies, and her employer reimbursed her for traveling to visit patients.

The accident occurred when her cell phone lit up and she momentarily looked down, assuming her employer was trying to contact her. The distraction caused her car tires to slide and she struck a bank on the other side of the road, according to the ruling.

A deputy workers comp commissioner found the accident was compensable based on the specific facts of the case, but Ms. Turpin's employer appealed to the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission. The employer and insurer argued that the claimant did not suffer an injury that arose from her employment.

The commission disagreed and upheld the benefits award as did the state appellate court in its Oct. 4 ruling.

In its analysis, the appellate court noted that today's employers commonly contact workers through electronic communications devices. Yet the mere possibility that a cell phone call might originate from an employer does not mean any injury that occurs arises from their employment, the court said.

However, the specific facts of this case mean Ms. Turpin's injury arose from her employment, the court ruled.

Her response to the call stemmed from her particular attentiveness to the distinct requirements of her job, specifically monitoring her cell phone for employer communications. Therefore, there was a “causal connection between the claimant's injury and the conditions under which the employer required the work to be performed,” the court ruled.

In a dissent, however, Judge D. Arthur Kelsey said there was no evidence that Ms. Turpin's employer actually called her personal cell phone, among other issues.