Relationship to Work — a Case Study

Recently the Vermont Department of Labor decided an interesting case that explores many of the legal concepts behind what makes an injury work-related. The case is Kelly Moreton v. State of Vermont. Ms. Moreton worked as a benefits programs specialist for the state. She usually worked at an office in Essex. However, in 2013 her employer told her that she had to go to a mandatory 3-day training session in Stowe. The training was to start at 9:00 a.m. each day. The state would start paying her each day at 8:00.  On their own, Ms. Moreton and some of her coworkers decided to carpool. For the first day of training, they agreed to meet early — at 7:30 — at a Starbucks in South Burlington because they wanted to make sure that they would be at the training on time. The forecast called for bad weather, and none of the coworkers were familiar with where they were going. As it happened, it rained the night before, and by morning the ground was covered in ice. Ms. Moreton slipped on ice outside Starbucks as she was walking to meet her coworkers and severely injured her shoulder.

The employer denied Ms. Moreton’s claim for worker’s compensation, arguing that her injury was not related to work. The key concepts in this case are what it means to “arise out of and in the course of employment”. Entitlement to workers’ compensation flows from the relationship to work, and in order for an injury to be work-related, it must both arise out of and in the course of employment. Ultimately Ms. Moreton won her claim.

An injury occurs in the course of employment if it is linked to work by place, time, and activity. Although Ms. Moreton’s injuries did not occur at her usual place of work, her case was helped out by the rules for special errands and business trips. For someone commuting to his or her usual place of work, injuries occur in the course of employment only if they occur on the employer’s premise. However, if the employee is sent on a special errand or business trip, injuries that occur in the course of that trip are also related to work. The only exception is if the employee’s actions deviate significantly from the business purpose of the trip. Here, Ms. Moreton had been sent on a special business trip for training. Meeting her coworkers at the Starbucks to commute was not a significant deviation from that trip. Her injury was therefore linked to employment by place.

As for the timing of the injury, Ms. Moreton’s injury did not occur while she was on the pay clock. However, the Department of Labor did not find this fact significant. The coworkers had agreed to meet early so that they would not be late because of the weather and their unfamiliarity with Stowe. This choice was reasonable and significantly benefited the employer. The injury was therefore linked to employment by time.

An activity is linked to employment if it provides a benefit to the employer. All the actions of the coworkers related to car-pooling were undertaken in good faith in order to advance the employer’s interest, and were therefore found to be of benefit to the employer. The injury was related to employment by activity as well.

With respect to “arising out of” employment, the Department of Labor applied the positional risk doctrine, which states that an injury arises out of employment if it would not have occurred but for the conditions and obligations of employment having placed the worker in the position where he or she was injured. Because the sole purpose of the meeting at Starbucks was to commute to a work-related training, the obligations of employment had put Ms. Moreton in the position that resulted in her injury, and the circumstances under which the injury occurred were not so attenuated from the conditions of employment as to break this causal relationship.

The Department awarded Ms. Moreton worker’s compensation.