An employee fell off a ladder trimming wisteria branches while on call at his home. He applied for workers’ comp. We’ll tell you this much up front: When the case went to an appeals court, a three-judge panel issued a split decision.
Richard Warner is a firefighter employed by the County of Los Angeles. He’s stationed on Catalina Island with one other firefighter.
He’s required to live on the island to respond to emergencies 24 hours a day. He’s on call from his home 26 weekends per year.
When he’s not at the firehouse, Warner responds to emergencies from his home, partially because there’s no place for him to stay at the firehouse. He actually ends up responding to more emergencies from his house than from the firehouse. His employer doesn’t provide the housing, but he receives a stipend to help pay for it.
Catalina Island residents sometimes go to Warner’s house to request assistance when they see the fire truck parked in front of his home. The residents have to walk “through a wisteria-laden path.”
One Sunday, Warner was on duty at home. He did some inventory work in his home office and was going outside to check equipment on the fire truck. As he went outside, his wife asked him to help her trim the wisteria.
The court record states that if people came to his residence for help, the wisteria would “hit everyone in the face if it is not trimmed.”
Warner climbed a ladder to trim the vines. Part of a trellis gave way, and he fell off the ladder injuring his neck, back, elbow, wrist and shoulder.
After he applied for benefits, a workers’ compensation judge found Warner’s injury didn’t arise out of or occur in the course of employment.
On appeal, the workers’ comp board ruled California’s “bunkhouse rule” didn’t apply because Warner wasn’t required to live on his employer’s premises even though he was required to live on Catalina Island. The board said Warner was performing a personal chore, not a service for his employer. For that reason, it upheld the denial of workers’ comp benefits.
Next, the case went to a California appeals court.
Here’s how a two-judge majority on the court saw the situation: Trimming the wisteria ensured residents had safe access to Warner’s house and allowed him to reach his fire truck safely when responding to emergency calls. The judges said trimming the vine was “impliedly authorized by the county” because residents sometimes went to his home for help.
Sure, Warner was cutting the wisteria because his wife asked him to. But California’s dual purpose doctrine says when an employee is combining personal and work business, he’s considered to be working.
Therefore, the judges concluded that Warner’s injury was compensable under the dual purpose doctrine. The court said: Give Warner comp benefits.
But one judge on the appeals court wrote a dissenting opinion. That judge noted Warner’s home wasn’t provided by his employer and the county didn’t require him to maintain his home as if it were a fire station.
The dissenting judge wrote:
The issue comes down to whether [Warner’s] act that resulted in his injury — trimming the wisteria — was within the scope of his assigned duties and arose out of those duties. The wisteria did not prevent [him] from reaching his fire apparatus. There is no evidence that petitioner’s (Warner’s) wife or petitioner undertook to cut the wisteria as a safety measure. If trimming vegetation in a personal residence arises out of the employment, so would any activity around the residence. Thus, I agree with the Board and would not annul its decision.
But that judge was in the minority, so it looks like Warner will get workers’ comp.
What do you think about this decision? Which judge(s) do you agree with? Let us know in the comments below.
(Warner v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, Court of Appeal CA, No. B232190, 12/27/11)