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Illinois Appellate Court Majority Rules Accident At Home Compensable Because Benefitted Employer
Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Last week the Appellate Court, Workers' Compensation Commission Division, handed down its decision in Bolingbook Police Department v. Illinois Workers' Compensation Comm'n, 2015 IL App (3d) 130869WC, where the majority, in an opinion authored by Justice Stewart, opined that a police officer who was retrieving his duty bag, which stored his helmet, service weapon and ammunition, among other items, from the trunk of his personal car at his home suffered a compensable injury to his low back. The employer required the claimant to keep the duty bag "with his person," but did not specify what that meant. The claimant chose to bring his duty bag home, rather than store it in his locker at the station, to keep it secure on his person, which was apparently not prohibited by the employer.

The evidence in the record supports a finding that, as part of his job duties, the claimant was responsible for the safekeeping of his duty bag. He testified that the employer required him to keep the duty bag with his person, presumably while on patrol. The evidence in the record also supports a finding that, at the end of his shift, the employer allowed him at least two options with respect to the job-related task of safekeeping the duty bag: securing the bag in lockers at the police station or securing the bag at his personal residence. Both options were apparently acceptable to the employer as many officers took their duty bags home at the end of their shifts, and the employer had no rule prohibiting the safekeeping of duty bags at officers' personal residences. Therefore, regardless of which of the two options the claimant chose at the end of any given shift, the Commission could find that the responsibility for the safekeeping of the duty bag remained a job-related undertaking.

Bolingbrook Police Dep't, 2015 IL App (3d) 130869WC, ¶ 41. The court found that the claimant's injury, even though it happened at home and before his work shift started, was compensable because he was performing an activity that advanced the employer's purpose of keeping the community safe from the items stored inside.

According to the majority:

Because safekeeping the duty bag at home was acceptable to the employer, it does not matter whether the claimant injured his back while loading his duty bag into a personal vehicle or loading the bag into or retrieving the bag out of a locker at the station. The evidence supports a finding that both scenarios entail identical tasks that are incidental to the claimant's job-related responsibility of keeping his duty bag secure. Because the employer allowed its officers to secure their duty bags at their personal residences, the employer could reasonably expect its officers to perform the tasks necessary for securing duty bags at their personal residences; the employer would know that the claimant needed to move the duty bag in his garage for loading and unloading the bag from its secure storage.

Id, ¶ 42. The majority found the employer had "a direct interest in seeing that its officers maintain the safekeeping of the equipment that is necessary for their duties on patrol." Id, ¶ 44. The claimant was injured while performing actions that were directly related to this job-related task.

The majority further held that the claimant's low back condition was causally connected to the accident, despite substantial evidence of pre-existing problems and medical treatment. According to the majority, a conflict existed within the medical evidence as to whether the treating physician had actually recommended surgery prior to the accident; but surgery had been discussed and four days before the accident the claimant discontinued physical therapy treatment because he anticipated having surgery. The claimant underwent surgery two days following the accident.

Noting the treating physicians' opinions, the majority explained:

Dr. Miller admitted that it was possible that the act of lifting the 40-pound duty bag could cause an increase in pain in an individual with a preexisting back condition. He admitted that the increased pressure on the claimant's disc from lifting the duty bag could cause additional injuries or worsening of the claimant's disc condition. Likewise, Dr. Mataragas opined that the mechanism of bending forward is a flexion movement "which does increase pressure on the disc." He concluded that, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, "the incident of February 17, 2009, did in fact lead to [the claimant's] surgery as he was not symptomatic enough prior to that incident to require a surgery."

Id, ¶ 55. The majority noted that the Commission was entitled to rely on these statements despite the presence of conflicting medical evidence concerning the need for the surgery prior to the accident.

Justices Hudson and Harris dissented, finding that the accident did not occur "in the course of" the employment. According to the dissent, "[a]t the time of the alleged injury in the present case, claimant was employed as a police officer. He alleged that he injured his back as he was placing his duty bag in the trunk of his personal vehicle prior to leaving his home for work. Thus, the alleged injury did not occur on respondent's premises or at a place where claimant was reasonably expected to be in the performance of his duties." Id, ¶ 63. The dissent observed:

First, there was no evidence regarding how claimant's decision to bring his duty bag home after each shift benefitted respondent. In fact, claimant expressly acknowledged that he was not required to bring his duty bag home and that respondent provided a locker at the police station for each officer to store his or her equipment. Nevertheless, claimant elected to take the duty bag home so that he would not have to carry it back and forth from his locker at the beginning and end of each shift.

Id, ¶ 64. In other words, the evidence of record clearly established that it was claimant's own decision to take his duty bag home after each shift and that he did so for his own convenience, not for the benefit of respondent.

Second, the dissent pointed out that contrary to the Commission's finding, the claimant's testimony that the duty bags were to be kept with officers for safekeeping even while off duty was contradicted. "Initially, claimant did state that he was required to keep the duty bag 'with [his] person.'" Id, ¶ 65. However, the claimant later indicated that he was not required to bring his duty bag home and that respondent provided a locker at the police station for each officer to store his or her equipment. Moreover, the claimant did not keep his duty bag with him at all times. "If respondent provided a locker for its officers to store their equipment and if respondent personally kept his duty bag in his garage, he was clearly not required to keep his duty bag with him at all times." Id.


Bolingbrook Police Department appears to expand the law on compensability of claims where the injury takes place off the employer's premises, but while the employee is engaged in an activity incidental to his employment. Certainly a situation where the employee is required to carry or transport his duty bag would seem to fall within those "arising out of" situations envisioned by the Act. But in cases such as this, where the employee voluntarily decides to take his duty bag home and is injured moving it, it is much harder, as the dissent points out, to establish "in the course of."

It seems in this case the claimant was allowed to expand the scope of his employment by voluntarily deciding he would take his duty bag home. It further appears the claimant did this in large part for his own convenience – he did not want to return his duty bag to his personal locker at work. To combat such circumstances, employers should clearly state what employees may and may not take home, so that the risk can be better controlled

While not dealing with at-home workers, Bolingbrook Police Department foreshadows the problems that employers can expect from employees who work at home. Rules and guidelines must be established to specify what is considered permissible "at-home" work.

The case is also disturbing on the causation issue. Here, the record clearly showed surgery had been recommended prior to the accident; indeed, surgery occurred only two days after the accident and the claimant had, just prior to the accident, ceased all physical therapy in anticipation of surgery. To get past this seemingly insurmountable point, the majority relied on the claimant's subjective testimony that the pain felt "different" afterwards and because the new pain was purportedly "incapacitating." Nevertheless, it is hard to see what this employer and counsel could have introduced to place themselves in a better position medically.

On both "arising out of" and "in the course of," as well as medical causation, it is important to note that the appellate court affirmed the Commission's decision using the manifest weight of the evidence standard of review. Under that standard, the court must affirm so long as there is some evidence to support the Commission's findings of fact. The appellate court majority did note the existence of conflicting testimony, especially concerning the medical causation issues. However, even so, one wonders whether this case should have been one of the few cases satisfying the manifest weight standard.

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