In the course of employment: Business v. family relationship and the bunkhouse rule

The issue

The Pennsylvania workers' compensation law requires that an employee injured in his or her work must be "in the course of employment" in order to receive benefits. This seemingly simple phrase has generated a mountain of litigation, as administrative agencies and courts have struggled to balance the liberal social philosophy behind the legislation against a practical limitation to the costs borne by employers.

The case

As reported by The Patriot News in 2014, one of the latest cases to deal with this issue is that of a woman who was stabbed by her own son and who was awarded workers' compensation by the judge and ultimately by the Commonwealth Court. The facts could be described as unusual to say the least.

In 2009, a mother was employed as a health care provider for her adult son under a state-paid contract. The son had serious health issues due to his long history of drug use. He moved into his mother's house about nine months before the incident, when he came into his mother's bedroom during the night and attacked her with a kitchen knife. The attack was stopped by the mother's husband.

The mother claimed that she had a business relationship with her son and sought workers' compensation for physical and psychological injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder. A workers' compensation judge found that there was an employment relationship and awarded her $460 weekly. The son, who was convicted for attempted murder and aggravated assault, and is serving a 12-to-25-year sentence in a state prison, challenged the award.

The Workers' Compensation Appeal Board, in a 4-2 decision, sided with the son and denied the mother's benefits, after finding that she had not sustained a work-related injury. The mother appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

The court, in a decision reported at O'Rourke v. WCAB (Gartland), 1794 C.D. 2012, reversed the decision of the board, saying that the mother was "practically required" to live with her son as part of contract of employment, and that she was hurt at her work location, her injuries being caused by the business of caring for him. The court based its decision, in part, upon a 1924 case that spelled out the "bunkhouse rule": an employment relationship may continue outside regular working hours where it is to the advantage to the employer that the employee stay on the employment premises. In the 1924 case, the employees stayed in a bunkhouse, rather than go home, in order to prevent strike-related actions. While sleeping in the bunkhouse, three employees died when a bomb was tossed into the bunkhouse. Here, the mother was required by the nature of her job to provide attendant care up to 64 hours a week; the only feasible manner was to do so in her home.

Conclusion

This case demonstrates that "in the course of employment" is a term that does not have a precise statutorily-defined definition, but is a term that is continually defined and refined by workers' compensation judges and the appellate courts. Injuries can frequently be considered work-related even outside of standard jobs. If you are injured and suspect the injury is work-related, and are denied benefits, your best choice of action is to consult an experienced workers' compensation attorney to explore your legal options and to secure for you the compensation you deserve.