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Worker injured on break entitled to comp benefits: Court

Washington Metro

A Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority worker who was injured at work while on her break is entitled to workers compensation, a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals unanimously held on Thursday.

In Gaines v. District of Columbia Department of Employment Services, the appellate court vacated a decision by the department’s Compensation Review Board that the woman’s injuries did not arise out of the course of her employment.

Rail station manager Lemakia Gaines was scheduled to work a swing shift for the transit authority. After her first shift ended, she had a roughly two-hour unpaid break before the second shift began. She planned to take her break and eat in the employee-only auxiliary room, which was only accessible with a master key issued to station managers and employees.

Still in uniform, she took the escalator to the street to get a soda, and on her way back down the escalator to the break room she slipped, falling down several steps. She said she felt immediate pain in her neck, back, shoulder and left arm and was bleeding from her left leg, and was diagnosed with contusions, abrasions and sprains to her left shoulder and arm, spine and neck. She filed a workers compensation claim for medical expenses and disability benefits.

An administrative law judge granted Ms. Gaines claim, but the review board reversed the decision because the injury occurred while Ms. Gaines was on a lengthy break between shifts. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals, however, vacated the decision.

Although the employer testified that Ms. Gaines was off duty at the time of her injury, the court held that the main issue was whether her injury was distinctly associated with her employment, holding that it was not “thoroughly disconnected” from the workplace, noting that she was riding a transit authority escalator at the time of her fall, and that it had been raining and the escalator was wet. Using the “but for” analysis, the court found that assuming Ms. Gaines was not on duty at the time of the injury, it nonetheless arose “in the course of employment” because the injury would not have happened if her job had not required her to go to that station in order to work a shift. Although the transit authority argued that she did not have to arrive early or use the escalator to enter the station, the court held that construing “arising out of employment” so narrowly would “lead to absurd consequences, because many workplace injuries occur in circumstances in which the employer did not dictate the precise location of the employee at the precise time of the injury.”

The court, therefore, held that Ms. Gaines injury arose in the course of her employment as her plan to use the break room was “reasonably related to or incidental” to the employment, and that her injury was compensable.

The court vacated the review board’s decision and remanded it for further proceedings.

“We felt it was an excellent decision and it comported with what we believed was the applicable law and hope that it helps other Metro employees get what they deserve,” said Ms. Gaines’ attorney, Bruce Bender, partner at Axelson, Williamowsky, Bender & Fishman P.C. in Rockville, Maryland.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority did not immediately respond to a request for comment.




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