On Oct. 21, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio issued a ruling that eliminates the application of the dual-purpose doctrine in workers' compensation claims. Under the doctrine, an employee may be eligible for workers' compensation benefits if the injury occurred while the employee was traveling for both business and personal reasons. For example, an employee might be traveling to see family in another city but might also be conducting business in that city. If injured while en route, the employee would be entitled to workers' compensation benefits under the dual-purpose doctrine. In order for the doctrine to apply, however, the employment must be the factor that necessitates the travel, as opposed to the employee’s personal agenda. Other states have long applied the doctrine and found such injuries compensable — the Supreme Court of Ohio has declined to add Ohio to the list.
In Friebel v. Visiting Nurse Assn. of Mid-Ohio, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-4531, the employee worked as a home health nurse, requiring extensive travel to patients' homes. She was paid for travel time and mileage, which varied between weekdays and weekends. On the day she was injured, she was traveling from her home in Shelby, Ohio, to Ontario, Ohio, where her patient resided. She decided that on the way to Ontario she would drop her son, daughter and some family friends off at the Richland Mall in Ontario before visiting her patient. Before arriving at the mall, her vehicle was struck from behind at a traffic light. Having sustained injuries, she filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits.
After a series of grants and denials on the allowance of the claim, both administratively and in the trial court, the case reached the Fifth District Court of Appeals. The appellate court found that even though the employee had intended to drop her passengers off at the mall, she had the dual-intent or purpose of traveling to her patient’s home and had not diverted from that path when the accident occurred. The appellate court further held that but for her employment she would not have made the trip to Ontario in the first place.
The Supreme Court, on the other hand, found the appellate court’s reasoning to be an endorsement of the dual-purpose doctrine and a departure from established case precedence. Rather than focusing solely on whether the injury occurred in the course of and arising out the employment (as required in all workers' compensation claims), the appellate court turned toward the employee’s intent as part of its analysis, thereby making it difficult to determine whether the injury actually occurred in the course of employment. Specifically, the Supreme Court acknowledged the appellate court’s logic that when the accident occurred it was prior to the nurse reaching the mall, at a time when she had yet to divert from her employment purpose because she was still heading toward her patient’s home. Hence, she was in the course of her employment when the accident occurred. Although a valid point, the Supreme Court stated that another reasonable conclusion was that she had yet to begin her employment purpose because she had not yet dropped off her passengers at the mall when the accident occurred. In other words, when did the employment purpose actually begin? The answer is subject to irreconcilable interpretations. In applying the dual-purpose doctrine, the difficulty becomes rather obvious when determining whether an injury occurred in the course of employment. Consequently, the Supreme Court held that the dual-purpose doctrine is inapplicable when determining eligibility for workers' compensation benefits in Ohio. Instead, the legal inquiry must be whether the injury occurred in the course of and arising out of the employment, without consideration of the employee’s intended purpose.
The lesson for employers in light of this decision is that claimed injuries occurring during travel need to be carefully scrutinized, both factually and legally. The reach of this decision is unknown, but the court has at least hinted that an injury occurring during a minor personal errand while en route to a work destination might not be compensable — even if the employee is being compensated by the employer for the travel, as was the case here.