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Are your employees ‘safe’ when working from home? The timely NSW Court of Appeal decision in Workers Compensation Nominal Insurer v Hill [1] explores this issue and an employer’s workers compensation risks for an employee working from home.

Facts

The Deceased and her de-facto partner (the Defendant) were employed by a family company as financial advisors. The Defendant was, in effect, the Deceased’s co-worker and supervisor. The pair operated out of their family home in New South Wales, where they resided with the Deceased’s two dependent children.

The attack by the Defendant on 16 June 2010 was inspired by paranoid delusions as he believed the Deceased was conspiring with authorities to take his clients and ruin him professionally. The Defendant was later found not guilty of her murder on the grounds of mental illness.

The Deceased’s dependent children made claims for death benefits under the Workers Compensation Act 1987 on the basis that the death resulted from injuries sustained of, or during, the course of her employment with the family company. Liability was denied by the Insurer.

Litigation History and Decision

The matter was initially dealt with by the Workers Compensation Commission where the Arbitrator found that the Deceased’s death arose out of her employment and that her employment was a substantial contributing factor to her injuries and resulting death. The Insurer appealed the decision however the appeal was dismissed by the Workers Compensation Commission Deputy President who determined that the Arbitrator had not made an error that would disrupt the decision.

The Insurer appealed the decision further to the NSW Court of Appeal, arguing that there was no causal link between the employment and the assault. Further, the Insurer argued that the Defendant’s delusions were not real and therefore there was no connection between the employment and the death. The Court of Appeal held that the Defendant’s offending conduct, regardless of whether it was irrational or illogical, materialised as a result of a hostile work environment created by the Defendant and thus was the sole cause of the compensable harm.

The appeal upheld the Commission’s decision to pay $450,000 of workers compensation death benefits to the Deceased’s dependents.

Working From Home during COVID-19

Requiring your employees to work from home, and ensuring their home work stations are ergonomically set-up, is not enough to mitigate your liability for potential workers compensation claims. This recent case illustrates that risks in other forms such as psychological stressors, or even hostile family members residing at their home, should be considered when requiring an employee to work from home, particularly during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

[1] [2020] NSWCA 54.

 

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