What should a Pennsylvania employer do when an employee seeks workers’ compensation benefits after injuring himself by engaging in risky behavior at work? Companies may be tempted to take the position that workers’ compensation isn’t available to workers who hurt themselves by intentionally doing dangerous things on the job. Recently, however, the Commonwealth Court found that Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act requires a more nuanced analysis.
In Wilgro Services, Inc. v. WCAB, the claimant was employed as an HVAC technician. He was assigned to work on air conditioning equipment located on a customer’s roof. Several co-workers were performing other jobs on the customer’s roof at the same time. Unfortunately for the claimant, they finished their work before he finished his. Not realizing that claimant was still working, the other employees removed the ladder that was used to access the roof and left the job site.
The claimant was left stranded on the roof, with no apparent way down. Eventually, he decided that his best option was to jump to the ground 20 feet below. His flight of fancy did not end well. The claimant sustained severe injuries to his feet and back.
The employer denied the claimant’s application for workers’ compensation benefits. It reasoned that by jumping from the roof, he abandoned his employment. The employer argued that such conduct was not among the claimant’s job duties and his leap from the roof did nothing to further the company’s interests. The case eventually made its way to the Commonwealth Court on appeal.
The Commonwealth Court ultimately disagreed with the company’s arguments. Instead, it determined that leaving the work site was a necessary element of any job, including the claimant’s. Since a ladder was not readily available and because claimant jumped from the roof in a legitimate (but perhaps foolish) attempt to leave work, the Court found that his actions were not so far removed from his usual employment as to constitute departure from his job duties. Thus, he was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.
In reaching its decision, the Commonwealth Court analyzed a similar case that resulted in a different outcome. In Penn State University v. WCAB, an employee was on his lunch break when he decided to jump down a flight of stairs on a whim for his own amusement. He too was injured. Unlike the Wilgro claimant, however, this employee was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.
The Commonwealth Court determined that although work injuries that occur during an employee’s on-premises lunch break are generally compensable unless they’re engaged in activity wholly foreign to the employer’s business. Jumping down a flight of stairs on a lark, the Court held, was an extreme, high-risk action that sufficiently removed the employee from the course and scope of his employment.
So, if an employee is injured when intentionally engaging in high-risk conduct that is not overtly work-related, employers should assess all the facts and circumstances at hand before deciding whether to accept the claim. In cases where an employee had some work-related reason to perform the dangerous act, they could be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits.