Court of Appeals Clarifies Workers’ Compensation Coverage for Injuries Sustained by Law Enforcement in Off-Duty Details
By: Michelle Sullivan, Allotta Farley and Widman Co., LPA
When an officer or deputy signs up for off-duty details or projects, one concern that frequently comes to mind is: “who will cover my medical treatment and lost wages if I get hurt – my employer or the business who has hired me to work the off-duty detail?” Work-related injuries are as common when a person is working an off-duty detail as they are when an officer working his or her regular job duties. However, initiating a workers’ compensation claim when injured on an off-duty detail can be a frustrating process with the employer and the party utilizing the off-duty services of the officer sometimes pointing fingers at each other and refusing to accept responsibility for the injured officer’s workers’ compensation claim. This, in turn, leads to disputes through the workers’ compensation administrative hearing process and sometimes, litigation in court.
This very situation was illustrated in a case recently decided by the Tenth District Court of Appeals in State ex rel. Oakwood v. Industrial Commission, 2010-Ohio-5861. In this case, an Oakwood police officer was injured while working an off-duty detail. In particular, the officer was rear-ended by another vehicle while he was in an Oakwood patrol car directing traffic at a construction site controlled by Kokosing Construction Company. Oakwood and Kokosing disputed the question of whether they would be responsible for the resulting workers’ compensation claim and this dispute proceeded to a hearing before the Industrial Commission of Ohio.
Ultimately, the Industrial Commission determined Oakwood was the employer which would be charged with responsibility for the workers’ compensation claim. The Industrial Commission looked at the “totality of the circumstances,” noting the following factors as the basis for its decision: (1) the Oakwood PD directed Kokosing to use its police officers for traffic control at the construction project; (2) the Oakwood PD directed Kokosing to utilize specific officers for its traffic control; (3) the police department arranged for usage of Oakwood police cruisers at the construction site, and the officers wore their Oakwood police uniforms; (4) traffic control was not a function ordinarily performed by Kokosing; and (5) but for his employment as an Oakwood police officer, the claimant would not have been engaged in traffic control duties at the time the accident occurred.
The Village of Oakwood challenged this decision in the Court of Appeals. The court concluded that based on the totality of the circumstances as identified by the Industrial Commission in its decision, that Oakwood was properly found responsible for the officer’s workers’ compensation claim.
This recent decision is significant because it better defines the circumstances under which an employer will be responsible for the work-related injuries suffered by its law enforcement employees who work off-duty projects. Up until this point, there have been only a few, very fact-specific cases that have addressed this issue, leaving the answer to the question of who is responsible for a workers’ compensation claim brought for injuries suffered on an off-duty detail unclear. Some employers have attempted to capitalize on this unsettled point of law by either refusing these workers’ compensation claims outright or by telling their employees in advance that they will not accept responsibility for injuries sustained on off-duty details. Other employers have even been known to threaten an end to off-duty details if the employees file workers’ compensation claims if injured while working them. These coercive measures have deterred some officers from working off-duty details and have caused others to needlessly incur expenses for medical treatment (i.e., paying co-pays and deductibles through their health insurance).
Until the issuance of the Oakwood decision, the only other case law addressing the compensability of injuries sustained on off-duty projects addressed a specific fact pattern involving an off-duty officer who was injured while trying to stop the commission of a crime. In Cooper v. City of Dayton, (1997), 120 Ohio App.3d 34, a police officer was working for a private security company at a grocery store during his off-duty hours. While working at this second job, he observed a shoplifting in progress and tried to apprehend the shoplifter by jumping on the hood of the suspect’s car as the suspect was trying to flee from the store. The driver of the car braked suddenly, causing the officer to be thrown off the car and onto the pavement. The officer filed a workers’ compensation claim against the City of Dayton. The City initially denied the claim, arguing that the officer was off duty and his workers’ compensation claim should be covered by either the grocery store or the security company he was working for at the time.
The court ruled that the City of Dayton was responsible for workers’ compensation coverage of the officer’s medical treatment and lost wages resulting from his injuries. In reaching this conclusion, the court reasoned that R.C. 2935.041(E) allowed the officer to arrest without a warrant whenever he had probable cause to believe the suspect had shoplifted from the business and that R.C. 2935.03 allowed the officer to arrest and detain a person found violating the laws of the state. As the result, the officer was acting in his role as a Dayton police officer at the time of his injury, rather than as a private security guard. 120 Ohio App.3d at 43. Thus, the court concluded his injury occurred in the line of duty and was compensable under the city’s workers’ compensation policy.
Questions pertaining to coverage of workers’ compensation claims can be complicated, particularly when off-duty details are concerned. 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.