Missouri Court of Appeals gives no “Break” to Employer in Lunchroom Injury Claim

The Missouri Court further muddied the 2005 reforms which attempted to restrict compensable work related injuries and awarded worker’s compensation benefits for a claimant who was injured on his lunch break based on the personal comfort doctrine. At the end of last year, the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed an award of PTD finding that the personal comfort doctrine allowed compensation for an injury during an uncompensated lunch break. The claimant was in the employer’s lunch room eating lunch when a chair collapsed resulting in a serious back injury.  The claimant had just returned to work following back surgery when he sat in the chair and it broke and he reinjured his back.  Wright v Treasurer of Missouri.

The defense unsuccessfully argued that the claimant was engaged in a personal comfort of eating lunch and that the statutory reforms from 2005 abolished the personal comfort doctrine (Section 287.020.10).  The personal comfort doctrine includes activities that the employer might reasonably expect employees to perform as those activities benefit the employer by allowing its workers to eat, take a coffee or cigarette break, or go to the bathroom. The respondent further unsuccessfully argued that the claimant’s weight could cause any chair to break and that he failed to show a specific work risk because he was equally exposed to collapsing chairs away from work.

The Commission found that the claimant was permanently and totally disabled as a result of his fall and prior injuries and that the injury was causally connected to the claimant’s work activities.   They further found that the claimant was not equally exposed to the risk of that particular chair collapsing in his normal, non-employment life. Specifically, they stated that the only place that the claimant was exposed to that particular chair was at his employment.  The Court concluded that the risk of the claimant’s injury was associated with his work and that the claimant was not equally exposed to this risk outside of his job.  In effect saying, the injury occurred because the claimant was at work and not simply while he was at work.

The court further stated that the legislature did not expressly abolish the personal comfort doctrine in the 2005 reforms.  “Nothing in Section 287.020.10 or in cases discussing it since indicates that the legislature sought to hinge recovery solely on the action of the employee, thereby eliminating recovery for injuries sustained during lunch on the employer’s premises.”   The court found that 287.020.10 barred recovery under the personal comfort doctrine when an accident occurred off of the employer’s premises but was not a per se bar to injuries that occurred on premises when an employee is on an unpaid break. The Commission further found the collapsing chair a “hazard present in the workplace”.

In a more recent Commission case it was said “There is no provision of the Law that requires employee to prove he was “working” at the time of his accident”.   The Commission will not “carve out artificial islands of non-compensability at the workplace, which islands have indistinct geographic and temporal boundaries. We deem such an approach impractical, inconsistent with the purposes of the Workers’ Compensation Law.”

This decision appears to removes the 2005 safety net that protected employers from worker’s compensation claims when a worker clocked out or went on a meal break on the premises.   Now employers appear to face liability for activities not specifically work related.  The only positive “break” for employers may be that they will not be sued in civil court for these injuries.

Thanks to veteran attorney Jill Baker for the summary of this new development.  Jill works out of the Chicago and St. Louis offices on Inman and Fitzgibbons and can be reached at jbaker@inmanfitzgibbons.com.

Lawyer-JillBaker_tn  inman-fitzgibbons-logo-272x144

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