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The “Zone of Employment” in Workers’ Compensation Cases
Mar 11, 2019


SITUATION A:  You report to the department for your scheduled shift.  While walking across the parking lot into the department, you slip and fall on some ice in the parking lot and suffer a serious fracture to your ankle.  When you file the workers’ compensation claim, you receive word that your employer is rejecting your claim because you were injured before your shift began.  This is worrisome for you because you have a high deductable health insurance plan and will be facing significant out-of-pocket expenses for your medical care.

SITUATION B:  You are a corrections officer, and you have just left your assigned area in the jail to get your lunch when you trip and fall in the employee break room, injuring your back.  You report the injury to your employer, who indicates that you will have use your health insurance to pay for your medical treatment and any sick time you have to cover your time off recuperating because your injury is not covered by workers’ compensation.  You are concerned about this because you are a relatively new employee who has not yet accumulated much sick leave.

Both of the scenarios set forth above are common occurrences with law enforcement officers.  The answer to question of whether an employee has a compensable workers’ compensation claim in each scenario is dependent on specific facts, but each presents a strong likelihood that the employee does, in fact, have a compensable workers’ compensation claim.

The threshold question that must be answered anytime a person is injured and pursues a workers’ compensation claim is:  did the injury occur “in the course of and arising out of his or her employment.”  This seems like a straightforward question; however, circumstances surrounding some workplace injuries, such as the circumstances in Situations A and B, can make the question difficult to answer.

Generally speaking, “course of employment” refers to the employee’s act of performing the obligations of his or her employment contract.[1]  This is not necessarily limited to injuries that occur while using the employer’s equipment or during specified work hours.  An employee needs only to be fulfilling his or her job duties or engaging in conduct that is incidental to the job duties when injured in order to have sustained an injury in the course of his or her employment.

As such, the boundary lines for the zone of employment are not necessarily confined to the employee’s actual work area, nor does the employee need to be injured while performing his or her assigned work for the employer in order to have a compensable workers’ compensation claim.  In assessing whether an employee has suffered an injury within the zone of employment, it is necessary to look at whether the environment was capable of causing an injury, whether the area has a proximity to the employer’s premises to present hazards that are attributable to the employment, and whether other circumstances exist in relation to the premises.[2]  This zone of employment rule has been applied to injuries that occurred before, during, and after work hours.[3]

The degree of control an employer exercises over an area in which an employee is injured is an important factor in determining whether an injury occurred in the zone of employment.  Further, if an employee has a limited choice as to access to his or her place of employment, the pursuit of such course is implied as an obligation under the employee’s terms of employment.[4]  For example, in Meszaros v. Legal News Publishing Co., an employee was injured when he slipped and fell on ice in a driveway as he walked from a parking lot to his place of employment.  Even though neither the parking lot in which he parked nor the driveway in which he fell were owned by his employer, Meszaros’ injuries were still compensable due to the fact that the employer assigned and paid for him to park in the parking lot, and provided only two means of access to its building, one of which was through the driveway where Meszaros fell.

Applying the law to Situation A, where the employee is injured in the parking lot, the injury would likely be compensable.  The Industrial Commission consistently finds that employee injuries that occur in employer parking lots are, in fact, compensable under the workers’ compensation system.  Although there is no Industrial Commission policy to that effect, such decisions are the result of case law previously generated in this area.[5]

Not only must injuries occur within the “zone of employment,” in order to be compensable, they must also occur within the time and course of employment.  This includes the employee’s performance of any duty that is directly or indirectly related to some aspect of the employer’s operations, which occurs within a reasonable time before or after the employee’s shift or designated work hours.[6]  Accordingly, compensable workers’ compensation claims have included injuries occurring (1) when a terminated employee picked up his last paycheck;[7] (2) when showering in the employer’s locker room;[8] and (3) while changing into work clothes;[9]or even (4) while on break for lunch or a snack.[10]

Turning to Situation B, above, additional facts would be helpful in determining the likelihood of success on a workers’ compensation claim.  For example, many law enforcement officers remain subject to call-out while on any break.  Further, many corrections officers and dispatchers do not have the ability to take breaks off the employer’s premises, and some are required to take their breaks in areas under the exclusive control of the employer that are not open to the public.  The presence of these types of factors would further support a conclusion that the employee’s injury occurring while he or she is on a break, would likely be compensable under the workers’ compensation system.

Unfortunately, many employers have a propensity to tell their employees who are injured in these circumstances that such injuries are not covered by workers’ compensation and this, in turn, discourages many employees from ever pursuing a workers’ compensation claim.  Ultimately, this forces these injured workers into needlessly incurring substantial out-of-pocket expense resulting from medical bills for the care that is required for these injuries, and sometimes depleting their sick leave benefits.

Questions pertaining to coverage of workers’ compensation claims can be complicated.  If you have questions regarding this issue or any other workers’ compensation issue, please do not hesitate to contact your OPBA representative for further guidance.

[1]              Industrial Commission v. Davison (1928), 118 Ohio St. 180.

[2]              Frishkorn v. Flowers (1971), 26 Ohio App. 2d 165.

[3]              Remer v. Conrad, 153 Ohio App. 2d 165.

[4]              Meszaros v. Legal News Publishing Co., (2000), 138 Ohio App.3d 645, 648.

[5]              See Griffin v. Hydra-Matic Div., General Motors Corp. (1988), 39 Ohio St.3d 79, syllabus. (“An injury sustained by an employee upon the premises of her employer arising in the course of her employment is compensable pursuant to R.C. 4123 irrespective of the presence or absence of a special hazard thereon which is distinctive in nature or quantitatively greater than hazards encountered by the public at large.”)

[6]              Philip J. Fulton, Ohio Workers’ Compensation Law (4th Ed), p. 279.

[7]              Id. (citing Parot v. Industrial Commission (1945), 145 Ohio St. 66).

[8]              Id. (citing Delker v. Industrial Commission (1989), 47 Ohio App.3d 1.)

[9]              Id. (citing Caldwell v. Industrial Commission (1945), 44 Ohio Law Abs. 39).

[10]             Id. (citing Bauder v. Mayfield (1988), 44 Ohio App.3d 91).

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