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The Concept of “Work Connected” in New Jersey Workers’ Compensation

By on September 27, 2019 in Workers' Comp Basics with 0 Comments

Employers are responsible for “accidents arising out of employment” under most state workers’ compensation laws.  What does this language really mean?  The easiest way to interpret this language is to consider whether the accident has a genuine connection to work or just happens to occur at work.

Take for example someone who is sitting at work talking to a colleague about a work matter when suddenly her jaw locks, causing severe pain and leading to treatment.  Would this be a work accident covered under workers’ compensation? It happened at work, yes, but what is the connection to work? The answer is that there is no bona fide connection to work activities.  Talking is something we do all day and does not amount to an accident.  If you consider the same scenario to have happened at home, where a husband is speaking to his wife when his jaw locks, one would certainly not call this a “home accident.”  Just as the home did not cause this to occur, neither would work be the cause of such an incident.  Some events just happen to occur at home or at work because we spend most of our time in these two locations.  These kinds of events could just as easily happen at the local supermarket or at a museum.

In much the same way, if one is walking from his den to his kitchen at home when his knee locks, leading to a visit to a knee surgeon for treatment, few would call this a “home accident” unless there was a fall on the floor or a collision with an object.  The same would be true at work: feeling leg pain while just walking is not an accident absent a fall or some other force acting on one’s body.  Yet we all know that claims like this get accepted all the time by employers because of a mistaken belief that something is compensable in workers’ compensation just because it happened at work.   The part of the equation that is often missed is that there must be some genuine connection to work, such as a slip and fall on a hard surface, a trip and stumble on a torn carpet, or a collision with an object at work.

The definition of an accident is “an unexpected event.”  So if a teacher is walking and a student comes barreling down the hallway, not paying attention, and slams into the teacher causing a hard fall and damage to the knee, that is an unexpected event clearly connected to work.  It both happens at work and arises out of work and is therefore compensable.

It remains this practitioner’s opinion that many cases get accepted in workers’ compensation that really have no connection to work other than that the event just happens to occur at work.  If you are at home, and you put on your overcoat on a cold day to go outside, when you feel a tear in your shoulder, you would not think that the home caused the tear in the shoulder.  The same is true if this happened to occur at work.  The reason such events often get accepted is that the employer sends the employee to a doctor, thinking the compensability decision depends on a doctor’s opinion.  It doesn’t.  The doctor then prepares a report and states the obvious: that putting on the coat caused a tear in the shoulder.  But the issue is a legal one not a medical one:  does it arise out of work, or is there a true work connection?  We all put our coats on during cold weather several times a day.  As a matter of law, not medicine, this tearing one’s shoulder while putting on one’s coat to go home is not an accident covered by workers’ compensation.  There is no work connection at all, and it just so happens that at this point in one’s life a tear occurred while from a personal action.

We all know this concept is true because we all have heard of cases where someone is driving a car and suddenly has a stroke.  Or someone is sitting at a chair at home or work when the stroke occurs.  Where the stroke happens to occur is simply pure coincidence because there is just no way for medicine to predict when a person who has risk factors will have such a cerebrovascular event.  But we do know that having a stroke sitting at one’s desk is not work related.  Those claims get denied and are won by the employer.  So think of “arising out of work” as meaning that there is a genuine “work connection.”

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, an executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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