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Can Workers Receive Comp Benefits If Injured on the Way to Work?

By Burg Simpson

March 7, 2016   Colorado Blog, Colorado Workers' Compensation

Whether or not workers are fully aware of the law, when they are injured at work, they are entitled to receive payments to cover medical bills, loss of wages, and compensation for disabilities that keep them from returning to work for life. When injuries occur on the job site or at the workplace, the rules are fairly clear cut. That may not be the case, however, if the injury occurs at a different location or if the employee is injured on the way to work.

Flight attendant grounded by torn ACL

This latter scenario was the backdrop for a recent case involving a Colorado woman employed as a flight attendant by United Airlines. The employee was injured while flying from Denver to New York City the day before she was scheduled to staff a flight departing from John F. Kennedy International Airport. On the flight to New York, the woman tripped and tore her left knee’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The injury was so bad that she required an ambulance to leave the plane.

Benefits snatched away via employer’s legal wrangling

Understandably, the injured employee filed for workers’ compensation benefits, pursuing them in Illinois where United’s headquarters are located. Based on her claim, an arbitrator awarded her $46,000 in temporary total disability benefits, medical expenses, and permanent partial disability benefits. In the legal roller coaster that ensued, the arbitrator’s award was reversed by the Workers’ Compensation Commission, whose decision was subsequently overturned by a county judge hearing the case. This latter decision was then reversed by a circuit court, reinstating the commission’s decision and ultimately denying the employee her benefits.

“Traveling” vs. “commuting”?

The decision, in this case, turns on a distinction made by the law between commuting and traveling employees. Traveling employees are required to travel away from their employer’s premises to do their jobs, and thus generally receive workers’ comp benefits for injuries sustained on the road. A commuting employee, on the other hand, is merely traveling to get to work and may be denied benefits on these grounds. The critical inquiry in such cases is whether the injury “arose out of” or “in the course of” employment. An affirmative answer to that question generally means an employee is entitled to benefits.

Generally, employees going to and from work are not eligible for workers’ compensation benefits in Colorado but there are exceptions to this rule. If a worker uses a company or private vehicle to go to a work site that is different than the company office it might be compensable. For traveling sales people there are exceptions to the general rule that can apply. Since each situation is unique it is important to check with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney as soon after the injury as possible to see if one of these exceptions apply to your factual situation.

As cases like the flight attendant’s illustrated, the law can be far from clear. Injured employees should seek the assistance of knowledgeable workers’ comp attorneys as soon as they realize a claim must be filed.

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