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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Clarifies Standards for Evaluating Workers’ Compensation Cases

Ohio does not recognize the doctrine of dual intent when determining whether an employee injured while traveling for both work and personal reasons is entitled to benefits through workers’ compensation, the Ohio Supreme Court decided today.

Instead, benefits are available only for an injury that occurs in the course of and arising out of the person’s employment, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote in the court’s majority opinion. The
5-2 decision makes clear the correct standards for analyzing Ohio workers’ compensation claims.

The case now returns to the trial court for further proceedings in line with today’s opinion.

Tamara Friebel of Shelby was employed as a nurse by the Visiting Nurse Association of Mid-Ohio (VNA) to provide in-home health care services to clients. Friebel traveled to the homes of her patients, sometimes stopping at the VNA office for mail, supplies, or meetings. On weekdays, VNA paid Friebel for travel time and mileage minus the time and distance it took to go to and from VNA’s office, regardless of whether she stopped there that day. When she worked on weekends, though, she was compensated for travel time and mileage without any reduction.

On a Saturday in January 2011, Friebel decided to drive her daughter and son, and two family friends, to an Ontario mall on the way to her first patient’s home, also in Ontario. Before she dropped off everyone, her car was hit from behind while she was sitting at a traffic light. She asked for workers’ compensation for a neck sprain.

The administrator for the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation allowed Friebel’s claim. On appeal, an Industrial Commission hearing officer denied the claim, then a staff hearing officer reversed that decision. VNA appealed to the Richland County Common Pleas Court, which granted summary judgment to the employer.

Friebel appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s decision. Even though Friebel planned to drop off the passengers at the mall, she had the dual intent to travel to her patient’s home, the appeals court ruled. The court found that she would not have been at the accident site if she had not been engaged in work duties because she was on her way to the patient’s home. The Fifth District ordered that the case be sent back to the trial court for additional consideration, but VNA filed an appeal with the Ohio Supreme Court.

Many states recognize a dual-intent, or dual-purpose, doctrine when an employee is injured while traveling for both business and personal purposes, Chief Justice O’Connor explained. That doctrine provides that if an employee’s work creates the need for travel, then the employee is acting in the course of employment while traveling, even if he or she does a personal errand. But if the personal errand would have taken place if the work reason for travel did not happen, then the travel is personal and is not taking place in the course of employment.

However, the chief justice noted, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the dual-intent doctrine in Cardwell v. Indus. Comm. (1951). But the court believes that the dual-intent doctrine influenced the Fifth District’s analysis in this case.

Regardless, “[e]ven when work creates the necessity for travel and the travel includes a personal purpose, workers’ compensation benefits are available only for an injury that occurs in the course of and arising out of the employment,” Chief Justice O’Connor wrote.

She explained the core analysis for these types of cases: “(1) whether the time, place, and circumstances of the injury demonstrate that it occurred in the course of the employment and (2) whether under the totality of the circumstances, there is sufficient causal connection between the injury and the employment to establish that the injury arose out of the employment.”

“Given the fact-specific nature of the workers’ compensation eligibility analysis and the impossibility of crafting a one-size-fits-all test, the dual-intent or dual-purpose doctrine does not have a place in analyzing workers’ compensation claims in Ohio,” the chief justice concluded.

She also pointed out that factual questions are still in dispute in this case, such as whether Freibel had a fixed place of employment and whether she was traveling her normal route to the patient’s house.

“As is evident from the procedural ping-pong this case has endured, more than one reasonable inference can be drawn from the record,” she wrote. “Because material facts are in genuine dispute, the matter may not be disposed of at the summary-judgment stage. … Thus, the merits of the claim must be decided at trial.”

Joining the chief justice’s opinion were Justices Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, and Judith L. French. Justice Terrence O’Donnell concurred only in the court’s judgment.

Justice William M. O’Neill dissented in an opinion that Justice Paul E. Pfeifer joined.

Justice O’Neill believed this case should have been dismissed as improvidently accepted. He also opposed creating a new rule of law in a summary judgment case with limited evidence.

While Justice O’Neill agreed with majority’s view of how to properly analyze workers’ compensation cases, he countered that the Fifth District applied that analysis and did not rely on the dual-intent doctrine in its decision.

He wrote that the appellate court mentions “dual intent” twice in one paragraph of its opinion, while it spent many more paragraphs explaining why the trial court erred and relying on relevant statutes and Ohio Supreme Court precedent. The Fifth District’s remand of this case and this court’s remand are both correct, he reasoned.

“Everyone seems to agree that Friebel, at a minimum, deserves her day in court,” Justice O’Neill concluded. “However, the court here mischaracterizes the holding of the Fifth District, and to that I object. … [T]his case should be dismissed as having been improvidently accepted. It was already on course and heading in the right direction, our pronouncements to the contrary notwithstanding.”

2013-0892. Friebel v. Visiting Nurse Assn. of Mid-Ohio, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-4531.

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