In 2000, the United States Census reported that 3.3% of Americans exclusively worked from home (or “telecommuted”) for their employer.[i] In 2016, that number increased to 5%.[ii]  Now, with safer-at-home orders, non-essential business shutdowns, and companies of all sizes telling their employees to stay home, that number is expected to grow exponentially—and is here to stay.[iii]

So, what does this all mean for workers’ compensation in Tennessee?

It is well settled law in Tennessee, as in most other jurisdictions, that for an employee’s injury to be compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act of 2014 (the “Act”), it must both “arise out of” and occur “in the course of” their employment.[iv]  Under this legislatively created quid pro quo system, injured workers forfeit any potential common law rights for recovery against his or her employer in return for a system that provides compensation completely independent of any fault on the part of the employer.

Because workers’ compensation is a case-specific question of fact, appellate courts in the State of Tennessee have intentionally “abstained from adopting any particular judicial test, doctrine, formula, or label that purports to clearly define the line between accidents and injuries which arise out of and in the course of employment, and those which do not.”[v]

Bearing this in mind, are workers that are injured while working from home covered under the Act in Tennessee? In 2007, the Tennessee Supreme Court in Wait v. Travelers answered “no,” but provided some words of caution for employers and employees with telecommuting arrangements.[vi]

In Wait, the plaintiff was an employee of a company who lacked the office space for her to work in their Nashville, Tennessee facility, so they approved her working from her East Nashville home. The plaintiff converted a spare bedroom of her home into an office, and the employer furnished her with office equipment, including a printer, fax machine, a dedicated business telephone line, and a budget to purchase office supplies.  In all respects, her home office functioned as her workplace. One day, plaintiff’s neighbor knocked on her door and asked to be let inside while she was on a lunch break during her normal working hours.  When she allowed him in, without provocation or explanation, her neighbor brutally assaulted her until she lost consciousness, causing severe and permanent injuries.

While the facts of the case are extreme, they were all undisputed.  Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking workers’ compensation benefits from the insurer of her employer.  Following discovery in the trial court, the defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment which was granted.  Plaintiff appealed.  Before the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel could hear the case, the Tennessee Supreme Court stepped in and accepted review given the unique facts of the lawsuit.

The Supreme Court emphasized that whether an employee is working at a designated office space or their home, the question for application of workers’ compensation law is whether the employee’s claimed injur(ies) “arose out of” and occurred “in the course of” their employment.

Because the plaintiff’s injuries occurred “within the period of employment, at a place where the employee may reasonably be, and while the employee is fulfilling work duties or engaged in doing something incidental thereto,”[vii] the Court concluded that plaintiff’s injuries did occur during the course of her employment.  The Court noted that injuries during breaks are normally compensable, including those for incidental acts such as eating, drinking, smoking, seeking toilet facilities, and seeking fresh air, coolness, or warmth.”[viii]

As for whether the plaintiff’s injuries “arose out of her employment,” the Court disagreed.  There must be a causal connection between employment conditions and the resulting injury.[ix]  The Court had previously categorized workplace assaults into three categories: (1) assaults with an “inherent connection” to employment, (2) assaults originating from “inherently private disputes”, and (3) “neutral assaults” which must turn on the facts and circumstances of employment. Here, the assault was a neutral assault which was only compensable under workers’ compensation if the plaintiff’s employment itself exposed the plaintiff to public risks.[x]  For neutral assaults, the Court also referred to the “street risk” doctrine, which can sometimes be used to provide a sufficient nexus between an assault and employment where the employee would not have been singled out for the assault but for their association with the employer.[xi][xii]  In plaintiff’s case, there was nothing in the record to suggest that plaintiff’s injuries were causally connected with the nature of her employment to establish that they “arose out of” her employment, and therefore her injuries were not covered under workers’ compensation.[xiii]

Tennessee appellate courts have not revisited telecommuting since the Wait decision[xiv], but this opinion may become increasingly important as working from home becomes more prevalent and employees are injured in ways that “arise out of” and occur “in the course of” their employment. Remote working alone will not limit the responsibility of employers to cover their employees’ compensable injuries.

If you find yourself confronted with a telecommuting workers’ compensation claim or have any questions about the Workers’ Compensation Act in Tennessee, please call us at (865) 546-9321 to set up a consultation.

[i] https://qz.com/work/1392302/more-than-5-of-americans-now-work-from-home-new-statistics-show/

[ii] Id.

[iii] https://www.npr.org/2020/03/09/812898220/laundry-between-emails-working-from-home-goes-viral-in-the-time-of-coronavirus

[iv] Wait v. Travelers, 240 S.W.3d 220, 220 (Tenn. 2007); Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 50-6-101 to -801 (2005) (“Workers’ Compensation Act”).

[v] Wait, 240 S.W.3d at 225.

[vi] Wait was decided under the Workers’ Compensation Act as enacted in 2005, but the result of the decision under the 2014 Worker’s Compensation Act framework would be unchanged.

[vii] Id. at 226.

[viii] Id. (citing Carter v. Volunteer Apparel, Inc., 833 S.W.2d 492, 495 (Tenn. 1992)).

[ix] Id. at 227.

[x] Id. at 227-228.

[xi] Id. at 229.

[xii] “Street risk” doctrine can also apply where employment indiscriminately exposed the employee to dangers from the general public.  The Supreme Court found that that prong of analysis did not apply in facts like those in Wait.

[xiii] Id. at 230.

[xiv] Although several decisions have cited it for its propositions regarding “street risk” doctrine and “neutral assaults.”