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Who let the dogs out? – Dog bite injury while working from home

Who let the dogs out? – Dog bite injury while working from home

Published on July 5, 2024 by Aleisha NairAleisha Nair

The Personal Injury Commission (PIC) has dismissed an appeal against an earlier finding that an employee who was attacked by a dog while working from home, was injured in the course of her employment.

Background

The employee, Ms Jessica Knight, was employed as a Case Worker by the Western NSW Local Health District. Her employer authorised her to work from home providing phone and video counselling sessions, on the condition that noise levels be controlled to allow her to concentrate while working.

While working from home, Ms Knight arranged to look after her daughter’s puppy. She tied the puppy up outside to reduce noise levels while she was taking phone calls. Shortly after finishing a work call, she discovered that the puppy was being attacked by a neighbour’s dog and she intervened. In doing so, she sustained injuries to her hand and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ms Knight lodged a workers’ compensation claim which was denied by the insurer on the basis that the injury did not arise out of, or in the course of, her employment and that her employment was not a substantial contributing factor to the injury.

The insurer asserted that, in leaving her work desk to attend to her daughter’s puppy, Ms Knight took herself out of employment. They also argued that nothing about her employment related to dogs, and therefore her employment was not a substantial contributing factor to her injury.

Decision at first instance

At first instance, a Member of the PIC found that:

the employee’s act of ceasing her employment duties to intervene in the dog attack was a “reasonable and practical necessity and consistent with what her employer would have reasonably expected of her in the circumstances” and therefore did not take her outside the ordinary course of her employment”; and

the employment was a substantial contributing factor to the injury as the puppy would not have been tied up outside, making it susceptible to the dog attack, if not to facilitate a work environment which was sufficiently quiet and amenable to the employee being able to concentrate and complete her duties”.

On this basis, the Member held that Ms Knight was entitled to weekly workers’ compensation for the injuries she sustained because of the dog attack.

The employer appealed the decision contending that the Member had, amongst other things, erred in concluding that Ms Knight sustained injury in the course of employment on the basis that she was injured after leaving her property, and therefore her place of work.

The employer also contended that the Member had failed to consider non-work-related factors that contributed to the injuries such as Ms Knight’s personal circumstances, which included that she was required to care for the puppy while her daughter was unwell.

Presidential Decision

President Phillips ultimately rejected all the employer’s grounds for appeal. He found that based on the evidence available, the Member was correct in concluding that the employee was injured on her property and therefore, her place of work. Ms Knight was, therefore, in the course of employment.

Furthermore, President Phillips found that while the employee’s personal circumstances contributed to the injury, it was open for the Member to conclude that the probability of the injury occurring was substantially increased by the puppy being tied up at the front of her home in circumstances that arose from Ms Knight “being at work and the nature of her employment”. In that regard, it was open to the Member to accept that the puppy had been tied up at the front of her property in order to facilitate a quiet and professional work environment in which Ms Knight was required to perform her duties. Employment was therefore a substantial contributing factor to the injury.

The decision highlights the legal risks and obligations of employers in relation to employees who work from home. The PIC is required to consider all work and non-work related factors in weighing up whether employment is a substantial contributing factor to an injury. There are numerous non-work related factors outside of the employer’s control when a worker is working from home, which might broaden an employer’s liability.

There is an arguable view that an employer’s liability could extend to any and every incident which may occur when an employee is working from home, so long as there are work related circumstances which substantially contribute to the injury. Ms Knight’s case exemplifies the seemingly broad liability upon an employer, who simply required her to work in a quiet environment.

Considering many employees may have now settled into permanent work from home arrangements or flexible working arrangements following COVID-19, prudent employers should consider implementing or refreshing their work from home risk assessments, flexible working arrangements and work from home policies generally.

You can read the full Decision here.

Please note that this article does not constitute legal advice. If you are seeking professional advice on any legal matters including employment law, you can contact Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers on 1800 059 278 or via our Contact Page and one of our lawyers will be able to assist you.

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