An insurance claims adjuster, traveling to assess hurricane damage, was found drunk and intoxicated on the beach. He says because he was a traveling employee, he deserves workers’ comp benefits for his injuries.
Traveling employees are often eligible for workers’ comp in situations in which other employees usually aren’t (more about that later). But that doesn’t guarantee benefits will be awarded either.
In this case, Rudolph Knight was in the Galveston, Texas, area, working for State Farm shortly after Hurricane Ike. Even though he was stationed in Texas, Knight lived in Washington state.
One day while he wasn’t working, Knight says he got in his car to informally survey the area where he would be working the next day. Along the way, he saw some men riding dune buggies on the beach. Knight says he pulled over to watch, and that’s the last thing he remembers until his wife visited him in the hospital more than 24 hours later.
It was four-and-a-half hours after stopping at the beach that paramedics responded to a 911 call and found Knight lying on his back in the surf mumbling, “Help me.”
The lead paramedic reports Knight told him he “had a lot of alcohol to drink.”
An ER doctor reports Knight also told him that he had drank a lot. The doctor’s initial diagnosis was alcohol intoxication. CT scans turned up a hemorrhage in Knight’s brain.
Further testing at another hospital indicated Knight’s brain hemorrhage was likely caused by a brain injury — some kind of blunt trauma to the head.
Knight filed for workers’ comp benefits. He was denied the benefits, and that decision was affirmed by the Board of Industrial Insurance in Washington state. The Board found Knight suffered his head injury because he became intoxicated and that his decision to become intoxicated was a departure from his employment.
Departure from employment = no comp.
On appeal, a trial court agreed with the Board’s findings and denied Knight a jury trial.
Knight’s latest appeal was recently decided by the Court of Appeals of Washington.
Drinking booze part of ‘personal comfort?’
Knight and the Board had agreed on one thing: In this case, he was a traveling employee. The question became whether he was still in the course of employment when he was injured.
The appeals court boiled the case down to this question:
“The proper inquiry in determining if a traveling employee has left the course of employment is whether the employee was pursuing normal creature comforts and reasonably comprehended necessities or strictly personal amusement ventures.”
Under the personal comfort doctrine, so-called acts of personal comfort don’t take the employee out of the scope of employment because they are necessary to his health and comfort.
Drinking alcohol in moderation may be considered a personal comfort if it helps an employee relax at the end of the workday.
But intoxication is another story. Get really drunk, and a traveling employee is considered to have “abandoned his employment.”
The appeals court noted there was “substantial evidence” Knight was intoxicated when he was injured. Besides the reports from the paramedic and ER doctor, a police officer also reported he smelled alcohol on Knight.
Said the court:
“Knight argues that his decision to stop on the beach and watch the dune buggy riders was an activity within the personal comfort doctrine and did not take him outside the scope of employment. Even if we accept this premise, becoming intoxicated is beyond the personal comfort doctrine.”
End result: no workers’ comp benefits for Knight.
It’s hard to believe anyone would disagree with this decision. However, you’re always welcome to weigh in, one way or another, in the comments. And let us know if you’ve ever had to deal with a workers’ comp claim when an employee was away from your facility.
(Rudolph Knight v. Department of Labor & Industries, Court of Appeals of the State of Washington, No. 69514-2-I, 4/7/14)