Nearly three years after a woman tripped over her dog while working at home, a state appeals court has ruled that she is not entitled to workers’ compensation insurance benefits for injuries she suffered.

The decision by the full 1st District Court of Appeal drew fierce dissents from two judges in a debate about links between injuries and jobs. The majority overturned a ruling by a judge of compensation claims, who said telecommuter Tammitha Valcourt-Williams was entitled to benefits after she tripped over her dog while reaching for a coffee cup in her kitchen.

“Here, the relevant risk was that the claimant might trip over her dog while reaching for a coffee cup in her kitchen,” Judge Allen Winsor wrote in the majority opinion. “That risk exists whether the claimant is at home working or whether she is at home not working. It existed before Valcourt-Williams took her job, and it will exist after her employment ends (so long as she maintains a home with a dog). Because the risk did not arise out of the employment, we must reverse” the judge of compensation claims’ ruling.

But Judge Ross Bilbrey, in a dissent, wrote that the majority reversed “decades of precedent regarding the compensability of workplace injuries under Florida workers’ compensation law.”

“The majority proves today the maxim that bad facts make bad law,” Bilbrey wrote. “At first glance, it may appear incontrovertible that falling over one’s own dog in one’s own home is not compensable under workers’ compensation. But distilled to the essential facts, claimant Tammitha Valcourt-Williams, was injured in a trip and fall during work hours in her workplace (her house) when she fell over personal property (her dog) while attending to her personal comfort. The fact that Valcourt-Williams’s home was also her workplace and her kitchen doubled as her workday breakroom should do nothing to alter our consideration of her claim.”

The accident happened April 27, 2016, as Valcourt-Williams worked remotely as a claims adjuster for Sedgwick CMS, a company that manages workers’ compensation insurance claims. She was assigned to the company’s Lake Mary office but worked from her home in Sierra Vista, Ariz., the majority opinion said.

She suffered knee, hip and shoulder injuries in the fall and filed a workers’ compensation claim. Sedgwick denied the claim, contending the injuries did not arise out of her employment, but Judge of Compensation Claims W. James Condry disagreed. That prompted the company to take the case to the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal.

The full appeals court took up the case and ruled 12-2 on Friday to reject the claim. Winsor wrote that the key issue in the case was whether the injury was “arising out of” Valcourt-Williams’ employment.

“None of this is to say, of course, that work-at-home arrangements immunize employers from workers’ compensation claims,” the majority opinion said. “Just as employer-premises accidents can have occupational causation, so too can work-at-home accidents. Had Valcourt-Williams suffered an injury from a risk her employment introduced — a repetitive stress injury from typing all day, as one potential example — it would be no answer for the employer to say she was hurt in her own home.”

But in a pair of dissenting opinions, Bilbrey and Judge Scott Makar raised the possibility that the majority’s opinion could have broader implications for people injured in workplaces, including people who slip and fall or trip over personal belongings. They also pointed to Sedgwick and other employers allowing workers to take “personal comfort breaks,” such as getting cups of coffee.

“No dispute exists that Sedgwick permitted its employees to take personal comfort breaks, that (Valcourt-Williams) was on an authorized personal comfort break in a location in her home where a break was allowable (her kitchen), and that she was engaging in a permissible activity (making a beverage) when the trip and fall occurred,” Makar wrote. “An accidental slip and fall under such workaday circumstances is generally compensable — whether it occurred in Sedgwick’s Lake Mary home office or in (Valcourt-Williams’) home office — under the personal comfort rule.”

By Jim Saunders
Apr 8, 2019, 2:03pm EDT