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A recent decision by the NSW Court of Appeal in March 2020 has given employers some guidance in determining the scope of possible claims under workers’ compensation schemes, even in the highly unusual circumstances of the case in question. The case is particularly pertinent to the way workers’ compensation laws apply to the growing number of people who are now working from home.
The case of Workers Compensation Nominal Insurer v Hill  NSWCA 54 arose from the violent death of Michel Carroll at the hands of her de facto partner, Steven Hill, in 2010. Ms Carroll worked as a financial adviser in Mr Hill’s financial planning business which was conducted as a family business from their home in Wamberal, NSW. Notwithstanding that the case originated in NSW, it provides useful guidance in our state as well.
Mr Hill was charged with murder but found not guilty after he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. At the time of her death, Ms Carroll had two dependent children – a teenage son and a newborn. The children made claims for benefits under the NSW Workers Compensation Act 1987 which the insurer initially denied. However, in December 2018, the Workers Compensation Commission ordered payments in favour of the children, finding that Ms Carroll died as a result of “injury arising out of and in the course of her employment”.
An appeal by the insurer was dismissed by the Commission and it was this decision that was appealed to the NSW Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal subsequently dismissed the insurer’s application and payments to Ms Carroll’s children were maintained. It’s the substance of this decision we’ll look at in this post.
How the court reached its decision
The issue, in this case, was the extent to which an employer is to be held liable when a worker is killed or injured while working from home. Ms Carroll’s case is unusual and extreme in that she was murdered in the family home by her de facto partner who was also both her employer and her work colleague.
The workers’ compensation insurer challenged the claims of Ms Carroll’s children on several grounds and the court was required to consider the following questions:
- was Ms Carroll killed ‘during the course of her employment’?
- did her death arise out of her employment?
- Was her employment a substantial contributing factor to the incident which ultimately resulted in her death?
The question as to whether an injury or death sustained by a person when working from home is “in the course of their employment” has been contentious. In Ms Carroll’s case, there was a suggestion she was killed ‘out of hours’, because it occurred before her usual starting time of 9am, and in a part of the house away from her work area. Was she then ‘at work’ for the purposes of the compensation claim?
Evidence was tendered to show that Ms Carroll often worked from early in the morning and from her bedroom while caring for her baby, including on the day in question. The court accepted such activities were in the course of her employment, recognising that ‘work’ can encompass incidents that extend beyond normal hours and places of work.
The next question was whether Ms Carroll’s death had arisen out of her employment and whether her job was a substantial contributing factor for the purposes of the claim.
These causal questions turned on the role Mr Hill’s psychotic episode played in Ms Carroll’s death. A psychiatrist determined that while his paranoid delusions were not solely caused by his work, it was a substantive contributor in advancing the symptoms of his schizophrenia. One of his delusions, for example, was that Ms Carroll was trying to destroy his career. A downturn in the business had impacted his mental health which in turn affected his thoughts towards Ms Carroll.
The implications of this decision
While the decision to award workers’ compensation payments to Ms Carroll’s children does not change the law governing such claims, it does serve as a reminder about the vulnerability of people to domestic violence working from home.
Before sending employees to work from home, employers should make a checklist of hazards and risks which could lead to a potential workplace injury. Following the decision in Workers Compensation Nominal Insurer v Hill, they should now consider any potential threats of violence (including from an ex-partner) and any other similar risks.
Proving a causal connection between injury (or death) in the home and employment can be a difficult exercise.
Where the injury occurs as a result of an incident of violence (such as that experienced by Ms Carroll) specialist evidence from medical experts and others will be required to show that the person’s employment was a factor causing or contributing to the injury.
Additionally, statements by others in the household (such as Ms Carroll’s son, in the case at hand) and records of work habits, computer use, phone records, will likely be necessary to establish a connection between the employee’s role and the injury they have suffered.
Call South Geldard Lawyers
South Geldard Lawyers assists employers in all areas of employment law. Notwithstanding that the case referred to here considered, and was adjudicated under, NSW law, similar provisions apply to workers’ compensation in Queensland.
The onset of COVID-19 and the greater use of technology to enable more people to do their jobs remotely means the issues discussed in this article will become increasingly important in years to come. If you have questions or concerns about whether your staff will be covered by workers’ compensation when working from home, call us today on (07) 4936 9100.
It is important to seek specific advice regarding your circumstances as this fact sheet provides general information only and does not constitute legal advice.
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