A Look at the Personal Comfort Doctrine And “In The Course of” Requirement

The Court of Appeals of Virginia recently had occasion to address the “in the course of” requirement as well as the personal comfort doctrine in the case of Newman Knight Frank and Zurich American Insurance Company v. The Estate of Bruce A. Williams, Record No.: 0600-20-2 (November 4, 2020).

The Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s award of death benefits finding that credible evidence supported the Commission’s finding that decedent was either resting before his shift or working. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that the Commission did not err in determining that, regardless of which was true, decedent’s injury arose out of and in the course of his employment.

Decedent worked as a master electrician for the employer. He was known by employer to occasionally spend the night at work. The evidence revealed that, after working his shift the day before and working through the night, decedent’s van entered the parking garage shortly after 8:00 a.m.—within two hours of his next work shift. Decedent was found sitting upright in his van in the second-row seating. Decedent was slouched slightly forward with his hand outstretched. He had a blanket over his legs and on the seat next to him were his work pad, schematics, and a pen. His work tools were in the vehicle with him. Furthermore, at 7:15 a.m., shortly before he went to the parking garage, decedent had notified employer that he identified a new problem with the boiler system that was unrelated to his other work that morning or the prior evening. Decedent’s cause of death was determined to be carbon monoxide poisoning.

The Court of Appeals held that whether the decedent was working or resting, either would satisfy the standard for compensability. The Court of Appeals held that assuming decedent opted to continue working, it was not unreasonable nor unexpected that he chose to use his vehicle as a workspace. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that if decedent was resting prior to his shift, they had no difficulty determining that the personal comfort doctrine applied. The Court of Appeals held that if decedent retreated to his vehicle to rest for the few hours he was afforded, it was for his personal comfort and incidental to the requirements of his job. The Court of Appeals held that it did not need to reach the question of whether the personal comfort doctrine only satisfied the “in the course of employment” prong and not whether the injury “arose out of” the employment. The Court noted that even if the personal comfort doctrine failed to satisfy the “arising out of” prong, the decedent’s injury arose from his employment “if he was resting for the same reasons that decedent’s injury arose from his employment if he was working: his employment afforded him no time to return home and no temporary lodgings.”

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