A first-of-its-kind law in Ohio gives employees who work from home parameters for what constitutes a work-related injury outside the employer’s physical domain, an issue that has been litigated in courtrooms across the country with mixed results.
HB 447, created in response to the pandemic and passed earlier this year, takes effect on September 23. It states that unless certain conditions are met, compensation is excluded for “an injury or disability sustained by an employee performing the employee’s duties in a work area that is located within the employee’s residence and that is separate and distinct from the employer’s location.”
The law states that three factors must apply for an injury in the home to be compensable: that the injury or disability arose out of the worker̵7;s employment; that it was caused by a particular danger in the employment activity; and that it was maintained in connection with an activity carried out by the employee for the exclusive benefit of the employer.
Philip Fulton, a Columbus-based attorney who represents injured workers under the Philip J. Fulton Law Office, helped draft the law on behalf of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, which championed it.
“The language just codifies what I had to prove earlier for one of my clients who was injured while working from home,” he said. “I think because of covid and the new reality that many people are now working from home, the chamber wanted some certainty about the elements of a compensable injury if they were injured at home.”
In crafting the bill, Ohio lawmakers looked at other states and cases where work-related injuries occurred in the home, and found that the laws and decisions varied — what was compensable in one state was not found compensable in another, according to Mr. Fulton. He said Ohio law makes compensable cases fact-specific: for example, a person tripping down the stairs in their home on their way to feed their dog, versus a person tripping while trying to pick up something work-related.
Timothy Zix, a partner and chairman of the workers’ compensation group at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Cincinnati, said the Ohio law is “good news” for employers. While there hasn’t been much case law in Ohio stemming from employees injured while working from home, a scan of cases across the country shows that incidents do occur, and the claims are often litigated.
Among the examples that Mr. Zix cited was a woman in Tennessee who worked at home who was attacked by a neighbor and whose injuries proved to be irreparable. In contrast, injuries sustained by a man at a distance who was shot in his New York home during a robbery were considered compensable.
In another case, a man in Utah slipped and fell while shoveling snow on his driveway in an attempt to retrieve a Fed Ex package; his injuries were found to be compensable.
And then there’s the worker who trips over a pet — which has happened in several states with varying results, according to lawyers.
“It’s kind of everywhere,” said Mr. Zix. “Ohio is trying to give employers some help with the special risk requirements” for an injury to be in the course and scope of employment.
The law would not apply to repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel, according to Christopher Ward, an attorney with Calfee, Halter & Griswold LLP in Columbus.
“In Ohio, carpal tunnel syndrome is usually managed as an occupational disease instead of an injury,” he wrote in an email. “It can be traumatic (carpal tunnel syndrome), which can be classified as an injury and come under this new language/law that changed the definition of injury, but usually it’s handled as an (occupational disease) that has its own test to determine (compensation).”