Missouri courts have long been chipping away at workers’ compensation protections. Perhaps nowhere has this been more blatant than in how the Supreme Court of Missouri effectively ended the “comfort doctrine.”
What is the Comfort Doctrine?
The comfort doctrine is a piece of the law that lets injured employees tap into their workers’ compensation coverage for accidents that happened while they were attending to their personal comfort while at work. This includes things like getting a drink or a snack from a vending machine, using the restroom, or stretching your legs by walking around the workplace. Technically, none of these activities is a part of the job description. They all, however, are a part of the normal work day.
While workers’ compensation typically only applies to injuries that arise out of the course of employment, the comfort doctrine has long held that these small personal activities are included, too: Workers who slip and fall in the office bathroom can still recover compensation for their injuries, even though they were not actually doing work at the precise moment they got hurt.
Missouri Tightens the Course of Employment
In 2005, though, Missouri overhauled the workers’ compensation system to benefit businesses in the state. A big change was in how closely connected the injury had to be to the work being done. Before 2005, the injury had to be “incidental” to the victim’s employment. After 2005, it is not enough for the injury to occur “in the course of” the job. Instead, it has to “arise out of” the victim’s employment.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the 2009 case of Miller v. Missouri Highway & Transportation Commission, a case we discussed a few months ago in our blog about where the workplace ends.
In Miller, a highway construction worker was on the job and walking towards his truck to get tools when his knee popped. Even though he was on the job, the Supreme Court of Missouri decided that his injury was not covered by workers’ compensation because it came from a risk that was equally present in “normal nonemployment life.”
Narrower Scope of Work Has Destroyed the Comfort Doctrine
If injuries sustained while walking to a truck to get tools for the job do not sufficiently “arise out of employment” for workers’ compensation, attending to personal comfort while on the clock seemed destined to fall outside the scope of work, as well.
In 2012, the Supreme Court of Missouri put the matter to rest in Johme v. St. John’s Mercy Healthcare.
In Johme, an office worker fell while refilling the coffee pot in the break room of her workplace. The Labor and Industrial Relations Commission applied the personal comfort doctrine and awarded her workers’ compensation to cover her injuries. When the case made it to the Supreme Court of Missouri, though, her compensation award was taken away: The risks of falling while making coffee could also happen away from the job, so workers’ compensation did not cover her injuries.
St. Joseph Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at the Smith Law Office
The fallout from the narrowing of the course of employment and the demise of the comfort doctrine has been worrisome. We will look at it in our next workers’ compensation blog post.