Did an employee that trips and falls while cleaning laundry on a work trip sustain a compensable workers’ compensation injury?

It is common for employees to be assigned to work outside of the office. Many times, such assignments require overnight stays at hotels. The issues in McSwain v. Industrial Commercial Sales & Services, L.L.C. revolved around an accident causing injuries to an employee while staying at a hotel. In this case, the employee flew to California to work on a project for the employer. The crew finished the project a day ahead of schedule. However, the flights and hotels had been booked for the employees the day after. As a result, the employees were given a free day in California. The employee used his free day to start a load of laundry and while he was waiting for it to finish, he had drinks with his co-workers. After the drink, he went to retrieve his laundry and slipped and fell on a wet spot in the hotel lobby. The employee made a claim for workers’ compensation benefits on the basis he was a traveling employee and entitled to compensation.

Was the Employee Able to Recover Benefits?

The employee’s claim was denied by both the deputy commissioner and the Full Commission. The Court of Appeals noted that the Full Commission denied coverage because “Plaintiff has failed to prove a causal relationship between walking through the hotel to check on his laundry and his employment.” In it’s analysis, the Court cited Brewer v. Powers Trucking, 256 N.C. 175, 178, 123S.E.2d 608, 610 (1962), noting that employees whose job requires them to stay overnight away from home “are considered acting ‘in the course of’ their employment ‘during the trip, except when a distinct departure on a personal errand is shown.’” They also noted that the employee still had to establish that the injury “arose out of” employment. In the opinion, the Court noted that a claim of an employee injured while traveling from a hotel to eat a meal is compensable while an employee who chokes on food while eating a meal at a restaurant is generally not compensable. The difference between the two is that the employment increased the employee’s risk of injury due to traveling to the restaurant while it did not place him at a greater risk of choking. However, an employee that travels from a hotel to a store to get soft drinks and is injured was on a personal errand as opposed to a meal that is required to further the interests of the employer. In the present case, the Court noted that the Commission found that the employee was injured while retrieving his laundry. The Court found that washing laundry is not always necessary for an off duty, traveling employee. This distinguished the facts from other cases as there was no finding to suggest that the act of doing laundry was necessary to further the business of the employer. As a result, the Court found that the facts were more akin to the off-duty employee Perry v. American Bakeries Co., 262 N.C. 272, 136 S.E.2d 643 (1964) and Bell v. Dewey Bros., Inc., 236 N.C. 280, 72 S.E.2d 680 (1952). As a result, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the Full Commission.

Practice Tip: The facts are key in reviewing a claim of an injury that occurred while traveling. Review in detail what the employee was doing at the time of the accident. Then apply the question, did the act at the time of the injury further the interests of the employer or were they a personal errand/unrelated to employment?