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Trip over dog not covered by comp: Court

Posted On: Apr. 8, 2019 1:07 PM CST

Shih Tzu

A woman who worked from home failed to show injuries she sustained after tripping over her Shih Tzu in her kitchen arose out of her employment.

In Sedgwick CMS v. Valcourt-Williams, in a 12-2 decision on Friday, the District Court of Appeals of Florida, first district, reversed a decision made by a judge of compensation claims that awarded workers compensation to a woman for her trip and fall injury at home.

During working hours on April 27, 2016, Tammitha Valcourt-Williams, a workers compensation claims adjuster, reached for a cup of coffee in her kitchen when she tripped over one of her two dogs, causing her to fall and sustain injuries to her knee, hip and shoulder. She filed a workers comp claim, but her employer denied the claim, contending that her injuries did not arise out of employment. The judge of compensation claims sided with Valcourt-Williams, holding that her injuries were compensable because her work-from-home arrangement meant the employer “imported the work environment into the claimant’s home.” Her employer appealed.

The District Court of Appeals of Florida noted that in past cases it has not hesitated to apply the “arising out of” limitation when risks unrelated to an employee’s work led to a workplace injury, such as denying compensability to an employee injured after fainting from a non-work-related condition because the employment did not lead to the risk.

The court held that in this case, Ms. Valcourt-Williams’ non-employment life — her dog, her kitchen, reaching for a coffee cup — caused the accident, not her employment. The court, however, said this decision would not “immunize” employers from workers comp claims in work-at-home arrangements, noting that a repetitive stress injury from typing all day at home would be something considered compensable.

As a result, the court held that the employer did not contribute to the risk that Ms. Valcourt-Williams would trip over her dog, and that the workers comp law therefore does not require her employer to cover the cost of the injury and reversed the decision.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Scott Makar said it was expected that employees who work from home will take periodic breaks and may suffer compensable injuries from falls arising from a range of causes. The judge noted that by “casting dog ownership as a purely and exclusively personal risk that doesn't ‘arise out of’ employment as a matter of law, the court thereby categorically prohibits coverage for workplace accidents even where an employer affirmatively allows pets in the workplace.”

Judge Ross Bilbrey, who also wrote a dissenting opinion, argued that a workplace injury from a neutral risk has been “undoubtedly compensable” and that the majority erred in their decision. The judge noted that in this case, Ms. Valcourt-Williams was on her coffee break — an activity permitted by her employer — was a necessary function of her being able to continue to work for eight hours, and was a neutral risk. The judge found that tripping over the dog was “no different than if she had slipped on a liquid substance on the floor” and was consistent with decade of case law which holds that a trip and fall in the workplace is compensable as long as it’s not caused by a preexisting condition, the judge said.

“By the majority's opinion we have injected substantial uncertainty in the multibillion-dollar Florida workers' compensation marketplace,” Judge Bilbrey wrote.

Attorneys in the case did not immediately respond to calls for comment.