27 Jan What Is An “Accident”, and When Is It “Work-Related”?
In its basic terms, Arizona’s worker’s compensation law seems pretty straightforward. It mandates that an injured or deceased worker (or his or her survivors) receive specified medical and financial benefits if the injury or death resulted from a work-related accident. As in other states, an injured worker in Arizona need not prove that the employer was at fault in order to collect.
Of course, neither the Arizona Legislature nor the Arizona Industrial Commission (which administers the workers’ compensation laws) could envision every possible accident scenario. As a result, for over 100 years the state’s courts have been called upon to decide whether an injury resulted from an “accident” and, if so, whether it was “work-related”.
Here are some of the many questions with which judges have wrestled. It’s important to realize that the list is by no means comprehensive. Also, note our frequent use of words such as “probably” and “usually”. We hedge because two otherwise similar cases can come out very differently due to seemingly small differences in facts. An injured worker who is not receiving expected benefits should therefore always consult an experienced Arizona workers compensation attorney.
Does an Accident Have to Be a Sudden Occurrence?
Many covered accidents, such as falls or collisions with moving equipment, do happen suddenly. However, for workers comp purposes an injury is considered “accidental” if either the cause or the result is unexpected. As such, a repetitive motion injury (for example, carpal tunnel syndrome) or an occupational illness that develops over time may be covered.
Can an Intentional Act Be “Accidental”?
Generally, no. For example, a worker’s hand injury caused by punching out a wall (or a coworker-worker) won’t qualify. However, injuries resulting from impairment by alcohol or drugs may be accidental so long as the employee didn’t completely abandon his or her work before the accident occurred.
What About Accidents That Occur While Coming to or Going Home From Work?
As a very general rule, an accident that occurs during travel to or from work is not work-related. However, an employee is considered to be “at work” once on the premises, even if he or she hasn’t yet clocked in or has already clocked out and is headed home. Special, more liberal, rules apply to first responders.
By contrast, a worker traveling in connection with work (for example, making sales calls or traveling from a work site or between company locations) is probably engaged in a covered activity. If the travel requires an overnight stay, it is probably still work-related even after normal business hours.
What About an Accident During a Coffee (Lunch, Bathroom) Break?
In general, an employee remains within the course of his or her employment even when engaged in personal activities such as eating, making permitted phone calls, or visiting the “facilities”.
Accidents at the Company Picnic, Company-Sponsored Softball Game, Etc.
If the employer substantially sponsors the activity and substantially benefits (improved morale alone isn’t usually enough) the activity is probably considered within the course of employment.
Accidents Caused by “Horseplay” At Work
While one won‘t find definitions of “horseplay” or “frolic” in Arizona’s workers’ compensation laws, both have significance when a workplace prank goes wrong and causes an injury. If the prank and injury involved “rough or boisterous play” that was “substantial” and was more than just a “momentary frolic”, it’s likely to be found to have occurred outside the course of employment and therefore not covered.