SJC Rules That Fatigue Caused By Voluntary Overtime Does Not Give Rise To Workers’ Comp. Claim

The Supreme Judicial Court has unanimously confirmed the general “coming and going” rule that most Massachusetts workers are not entitled to workers compensation benefits for injuries suffered while traveling to or from work, even when the injury is caused by work-induced fatigue. The case is another example of the SJC’s indifference to the plight of the modern employee.

The decision, Michael Haslam’s Case, SJC-09915 (April 8, 2008) [], concerns Michael Haslam, a carpenters’ foreman, who was assigned to the the Big Dig project. When Haslam completed his regularly scheduled 5 a.m.-3:30 p.m. shift, the major assignment that day – pouring concrete – had not even started. A carpenter needed to be present when the concrete finally was poured, and Haslam believed he would be fired if he left the work site prior to the task’s completion. Therefore, he worked until 8:15 a.m. the next day, when the project finally was complete. Exhausted from a 27-hour work day, Haslam tragically fell asleep while driving home and crashed into a utility pole.

The Division of Industrial Accidents granted benefits, but the SJC overturned DIA’s decision. Critical to the SJC’s analysis was the “voluntary” nature of the foremen’s overtime assignment: the foreman was not personally obliged to work overtime (the union contract arguably prohibited mandatory overtime), and the foreman never sought someone else to complete the assignment. In other words, the SJC blamed the foreman for his exhaustion and placed no duty on his Employer to ensure that employees are not exploited or overworked. The Court did not seem to acknowledge the modern-day work environment where people labor under significant, although unwritten, expectations of performance and the Court failed to grant much weight to the benefit derived by the Employer from the foremen’s continued work.

In deciding whether the exhaustion is caused by work, the SJC basically asked whether a “reasonable person” would perceive the overtime assignment as excessive and mandatory, not whether the injured employee felt that such work was excessive or mandatory. For instance, the SJC noted that 27 hours of work would not generally be considered excessive for a firefighter assigned to 24-hour shifts.

The SJC noted a number of injuries that may compel a grant of workers’ compensation benefits, even if the injury occurs while the employee is traveling between home and work, such as: exhaustion caused by excessive amount of mandatory overtime; injury arising from a “special trip” by the employee made at the request or benefit of the employer (such as attendance at an off-site mandatory meeting; or working an overtime shift during inclement weather). Interestingly, the SJC seemed to be more sympathetic to injuries suffered while en route to work, as opposed to injuries suffered while returning home.

As a result of this decision, employees who work a lot of overtime should, prior to working beyond a normally scheduled shift, try to establish whether the employer is mandating that the employee perform the extra work.

The SJC’s decision does not automatically apply to claims for injured-on-duty pay by public safety officers, which are covered under a different statute, G.L. c.41, §§100, 111F, and typically are resolved via labor arbitration. Moreover, Massachusetts courts have suggested that police officers are “traveling workers” who are exempt from the “coming and going” rule. Under court cases and arbitration decisions involving §111F, police officers in particular have had greater success in having injuries incurred while “coming or going” to be recognized as work related, especially where: the officer is subject to a Department rule mandating that s/he act appropriately on and off-duty; the officer is available to respond to calls for public safety at the time of the injury; the officer is traveling a direct route between work and home; and the officer is paid a basic weekly wage regardless of actual hours worked. See, e,g., Wormstead v. Saugus, 366 Mass. 659 (1975) (officer who was injured while returning from paid lunch break and remained on call is entitled to benefits under §111F); Gardner v. Peabody, 23 Mass.App.Ct. 168 (1986) (officer injured on en route to work after being ordered to report was entitled to 111F benefits).

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