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Visiting nurse injured in car crash: Will she get workers’ comp?

Combine a somewhat flexible work schedule, parenting and traveling for work, and you get a case that has been reversed at every step through the workers’ comp and court systems in Ohio. Now the state’s supreme court has weighed in.

Tamara Friebel was a home health nurse employed by the Visiting Nurse Association of Mid-Ohio (VNA). She provided in-home healthcare services.

On a typical work day, Friebel traveled from the home of one patient to another in her personal vehicle. At times, she stopped at the office to pick up mail or supplies, or to attend a meeting.

If working on the weekend, Friebel was paid for all travel mileage and time. On weekdays, Friebel was paid for travel time and mileage, but VNA subtracted 24 miles and 30 minutes each day to represent the time and distance it would take her to travel back and forth between her home and VNA’s office.

On a Saturday in early 2011, Friebel was expected to travel from her home to the home of her first patient. She decided to give her daughter, son and two family friends a ride to a mall on her way to the patient’s home.

While stopped at a traffic light before dropping off her passengers, Friebel’s car was hit from behind. She suffered a neck sprain and sought workers’ comp coverage for the injury.

Here are the back-and-forth decisions in her case:

  • The administrator for the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation initially allowed her claim. VNA appealed.
  • A district hearing officer for the Ohio Industrial Commission vacated that ruling, finding Friebel was not within the course and scope of her employment at the time of the crash. Friebel appealed.
  • A staff hearing officer of the Industrial Commission vacated the district hearing officer’s order and allowed the claim. The hearing officer found VNA conceded that Friebel was to be paid for her mileage and time driving to her first patient’s home on the weekend. VNA appealed.
  • A court of common pleas granted summary judgment to VNA. This court found Friebel was on a personal errand when the crash occurred. Friebel appealed.
  • An Ohio appeals court reversed, finding the crash and injury arose out of and in the course of employment. VNA appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Dual intent?

Normally, employees aren’t covered under workers’ comp for injuries suffered on the way to or from work because of the coming-and-going rule. But there are exceptions.

When an employee is injured while traveling for both business and personal purposes, some states recognize a dual-intent doctrine, which goes something like this:

If the employee’s job creates the travel in question, the worker is in the course of employment even though he is combining the trip with a personal purpose. However, if the work had no part in creating the trip, if the journey would have gone forward even without the business purpose and if the personal purpose fell through would have been canceled, the travel is then personal.

At first glance, a dual-intent doctrine would seem to make this case simpler to decide. If Friebel’s story was credible, it seems her job created the trip, therefore she should be covered under workers’ comp.

Just one problem: Ohio courts have rejected the dual-intent doctrine. The state’s courts have refused to recognize a blanket rule for employees traveling for both personal and employment reasons.

Instead, the courts make decisions based on the specifics of each case.

What does that mean for Friebel? The Ohio Supreme Court remanded her case to the common pleas court for further proceedings. This court originally found Friebel wasn’t eligible for workers’ comp benefits.

Why the remand? The majority on the Ohio Supreme court found the appeals court had mistakenly used a dual-intent analysis in making its decision.

Of note: Two justices dissented, saying the appeals court’s decision was correct.

This case isn’t over, but at this point it doesn’t look good for Friebel.

Combining parenting with work

It’s not a stretch to imagine this might have been what took place at the Friebel residence on the Saturday when the crash happened:

“Mom, can you take us and our friends to the mall?”

“I have patients to visit today, but I can drop you off on my way to the first one.”

Nothing unusual here: A busy, working parent is multi-tasking, which is often a necessity.

If it could be confirmed that the original reason for the trip was for Friebel to get to her first patient’s home, in several dual-intent states (among them Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska and West Virginia), her injuries might have been covered by workers’ comp.

What do you think about this case? Let us know in the comments.

(Friebel v. Visiting Nurse Association of Mid-Ohio, Supreme Court of Ohio, No. 2013-0892, 10/21/14)

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Comments

  1. jburzynski says:

    I would be curious to see where the accident occurred in relation to her patient’s home. If it was relatively close to where the accident occurred, or at least on the way, then I think it would be safe to say the accident would have happened regardless of the personal errand.
    If it wasn’t near the home, that seems to be a personal deviation from the necessary route from the workers home to the patients home, thus in my opinion making it not compensable.

    • W. Simpson says:

      Friebel should be granted compensation. The purpose of her trip was to get to her patients house, which was in the course of her work. The fact that she may have deviated slightly from her direct route to include something personal(in this case dropping off a couple of passengers) is incidental. How many of us drive a little out of our way to stop at a favourite coffee shop or lunch bar during working hours? is that not personal? What law says what route she has to take? She can choose whatever route she is comfortable with regardless if she has passengers or not. And If the employer does not permit the carrying of passengers during working hours, that is a company issue, not a compensation issue. The fact remains that at the time of her accident she was on the way to her patients house in the course of her employment.

  2. miltonmojo says:

    I’m with jburzynski – I’d like to know how closely she was following the direct travel route between her home and that first patient’s location. Dual-purpose rule aside, if she was on that travel path then I would concur with this being a work-related event since that drive is part of the work activity. However if she had departed from that route to accommodate her personal errand (drop off her daughter) then I don’t see this as work-related since she was doing something for herself at the time. The article is silent on this key point.

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