New West Virginia Case Finds an Injury at Work Not a Result of Employment

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Morton v. West Virginia Office of Ins. Com’r, 2013 WL 5508553, -- S.E.2d ---- (Oct. 4, 2013) (per curiam). Affirming Workers’ Compensation Board of Review’s denial of compensability.

In Morton, the claimant injured her wrist and shoulder while helping a co-worker lift a box of maternity clothes that the co-worker had left in her office. She sought workers’ compensation benefits, which was denied by the claims administrator on the grounds that the employer had received no “special benefit” from “a voluntary act on the part of the claimant to assist a coworker in a personal errand.”  The administrative law judge affirmed the denial decision, which was also affirmed on appeal by the Board of Review.

The West Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the Board of Review’s denial of compensability, in what was essentially a three-part holding: (1) helping a co-worker lift a box that does not contain work-related material does not provide a benefit to the employer; (2) helping the co-worker under this fact pattern does not promote generalized teamwork and camaraderie sufficient to rise to the level of “benefitting the employer”; and (3) “an injury which occurs while gratuitously assisting a co-employee with a task of a purely personal nature, involving no instrumentalities of employment and without any alleged involved of or benefit to the employer, not does not ‘result from’ employment.”

In dicta, the Court declined to apply arguably similar case law (Williby and Emmel) to the issue in Morton. The Court disregarded Williby on the premise that Williby is a “coming and going” case, and therefore only relevant where the place of the injury is particularly important in determining compensability (such as the “special errand” exception to the general compensability rule). Here, because the claimant was at work during her workday, Williby was inapplicable.

The Court further declined to apply Emmel, on the grounds that, while factually analogous, it did not contain the same issue of law. That is, in Emmel, the claimant’s injury occurred at the workplace, but not during the workday. Thus, the Court found that there was no causation between the claimant’s injury and his employment; he was not acting “in furtherance of the employer’s business” and that such injury was a “vague incident of employment.” According to the Court, the legal issue in Morton was quite distinguishable, as there, the injury occurred at the claimant’s workplace and during regular working hours. 

The Court found this case a close call and reiterated that whether a workplace injury is compensable under the workers’ compensation act is a factually intensive issue and will vary case by case.

Justice Davis wrote a spirited dissenting opinion that focused on the fact that the box directly impacted the claimant’s workspace, and removal of the box benefitted the employer by allowing the claimant space to efficiently perform her assigned tasks.  Justice Davis wrote that the claimant did not deviate too far from her job duties by helping the co-worker remove the large box from her workspace.  According to Justice Davis, W. Va. Code 23-4-1g(a) required that this “close call” case be resolved in favor of the claimant.  Finally, Justice Davis believes the majority opinion will have a chilling effect on employee relationships and morale if an employee is discouraged from assisting a fellow employee with anything that the employer has not specifically authorized.

The Morton decision was a fact-specific ruling.  Claims administration decisions in “close call” cases can still be made if supported by the facts and are not equal to an application of the former “Rule of Liberality” that was statutorily abrogated by W. Va. Code 23-4-1g.  The majority of the Court refused to reweigh the evidence and decision of the Board.