A hospital employee was injured while driving home after being called into work to assist with emergency surgery. Does she get workers’ comp?
Tina Shannon worked as a surgical technician at the Roane Medical Center in Harriman, TN. She regularly worked 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and was also on call for various rotating shifts.
On April 19, 2010, Shannon was still on call as she was driving home after assisting with emergency surgery. Another car crossed the center line of the road and crashed into Shannon’s vehicle. She suffered serious injuries, including a splintered tibia that required three separate surgeries. She missed almost nine months of work as a result.
Shannon filed for workers’ comp benefits, but the hospital denied them, arguing she wasn’t injured in the course and scope of her employment.
Her case went to trial, and the court also denied her benefits under the coming and going rule, that states injuries that occur when an employee is injured traveling to or from work are generally not compensable.
Shannon appealed the trial court’s ruling. In Tennessee, those appeals go directly to a special panel of the state’s supreme court.
No clear-cut rule
The TN Supreme Court found there was only one question in Shannon’s case:
“whether being injured while on call under these particular circumstances constitutes as injury arising out of and occurring in the course of employment.”
The court found there was no question that her injury arose out of her employment, because she wouldn’t have been driving home at 2:30 a.m. if she hadn’t been called into work.
The real issue was whether the injury occurred in the course of her employment.
If the coming and going rule was absolute, there’d be no question that Shannon wouldn’t qualify for workers’ comp benefits. But there are exceptions to the rule:
- when an employee is injured in a company vehicle
- when the travel itself is a substantial part of the services for which the employee is compensated
- if the employee is using a vehicle to transport materials used in employment, or
- if the employee is compensated for travel expenses.
Although the TN Supreme Court had previously addressed the question of workers’ comp benefits for injuries when an employee is on call, Shannon’s situation was different from its three previous rulings on the subject.
As state courts sometimes do, the TN Supreme Court turned to other states to see how they’ve ruled. That wasn’t much help. There was no clear-cut majority rule about whether injuries to on-call employees qualify for workers’ comp benefits.
“It is not possible to categorically grant or deny benefits when an on-call employee is injured while in transit to or from work,” the TN Supreme Court wrote. Therefore, the court said several factors should be considered, including these:
- whether the employee is paid for time spent on call, either hourly or as an increased salary
- the nature of any restrictions imposed by the employer during the on-call hours
- the extent to which the employer benefits from the on-call system, and
- the extent to which the on-call system requires additional travel that subjects the employee to increased risk compared to an ordinary commuter.
In Shannon’s case:
- She was paid an hourly wage by the hospital for the time she spent on call
- The hospital imposed several restrictions on its staffers during their on-call hours including that they remain in contact by phone, they be able to get to the hospital within 30 minutes and that they refrain from consuming alcohol during their on-call hours
- The on-call system permitted the hospital to offer operating room services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week even though it didn’t have regular surgical staff on second and third shifts, and
- It also subjected the employees to a greater risk by requiring more frequent and extensive travel, often at odd hours.
For those reasons, the TN Supreme Court found Shannon’s injury did occur in the course of her employment and she should get workers’ comp benefits for the 37 weeks she missed work.
In its opinion, the court noted that this does not extend workers’ comp benefits to all on-call employees in Tennessee who are injured while traveling home from work while on call. Each case must be considered on its merits.
And the court’s research on similar rulings in other states shows there are no clear-cut rules in cases involving injuries to workers who were on call. However, the questions the court posed in this case can provide some guidelines on the likelihood that workers’ comp will apply to employees injured while on call. Situations will vary from state to state due to the differences in workers’ comp laws and state court rulings.
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments below.
(Shannon v. Roane Medical Center, Supreme Court of TN, No. E2011-02649-WC-R3-WC, 3/13/13)