When is an injury truly connected to employment?

20 August 2020

By Luisa Gonzaga (Partner) and Julia Kerry (Law Student)

A Telstra Manager (Worker) who injured herself during a work trip has had her claim for compensation rejected on the basis that her injury was not sustained in the course of her employment.

The Worker appealed the decision made by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (Tribunal) on the basis that the Tribunal misunderstood the application of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (Cth) (Act) when determining whether an injury has arisen out of, or in the course of her employment.

On 26 May 2020, the court handed down its decision and rejected the Worker’s contention instead, the court reaffirmed the need for there to be a sufficient nexus between the activity that caused the injury and the Worker’s employment.

Dring v Telstra Corporation Limited [2020] FCA 699


Background

On 14 April 2016 the Worker, a senior project manager at Telstra, slipped on wet tiles in the foyer of the Novotel Hotel in Melbourne (Hotel) after returning from an “urgent” trip to the bathroom at 2:30 am.

The Worker whose main workplace is in Brisbane was in Melbourne attending a series of IT workshops conducted by Telstra. After the day’s workshop, the Worker shared a bottle of champagne with a colleague at her Hotel room, before the two went out to dinner and then on to a cocktail bar.

Upon returning to her Hotel, the Worker slipped on wet tiles in the foyer and suffered a contusion to her left hip. The Worker made a claim for compensation on the basis that her injury was suffered at the Hotel where she was staying for the purposes of work-related travel and consequently arose out of the course of her employment.   Telstra rejected the Worker’s claim.

Following the rejection of her claim, the Worker made an application to the Tribunal.  The Tribunal rejected the Worker’s application and made findings that her injury did not arise out of, or in the course of her employment with Telstra.

In addition, the Tribunal noted that since the Worker was required to be at work the following day, common sense would suggest that, at 2:30am in the morning the Worker would be expected to be securely in her Hotel room which had a bathroom and would have placed her at no risk of falling since it was not going to be cleaned at that hour.

The Worker appealed this decision to the Federal Court of Australia.

Decision 

The court found there was no dispute that the Worker travelled to Melbourne for the purposes of attending workshops organised by Telstra. There was also no dispute regarding the circumstances of her injury.

However, the court held that for an injury to be sustained in the course of employment, there must be a sufficient connection to the employee’s work. The court noted “identifying what is sufficient can be tricky”. However, in this case, the court held that “plainly [the Worker’s] injury was sustained whilst she was not performing the work for which she was employed”.

In addition, the court also looked at other cases and held that, “there is nothing exceptional about an employee enjoying a drink at a tavern…stopping off for a toilet break during a long road trip…sleeping within camp accommodations…or having a shower in a hotel room whilst on a work trip.” However, in this case “the same cannot be said about [the Worker’s] evening of 13 April 2016”.

The court further held due to the time of day the Worker sustained her injury, the socialising event which came before it, and the fact that the Worker was to attend another workshop later that morning, “the circumstances that gave rise to [the Worker’s] injury lacked a connection with her employment sufficient to constitute it as one that arose out of, or in the course of her employment.”

What is the lesson for employers?

In order for an injury to arise out of employment, there must be a causal relationship between the injury and the work. Injuries sustained whilst actually performing the work are clear examples of this.  

It is well-recognised that injuries sustained outside of periods in which an employee is performing his or her work or tasks incidental to it, may qualify as an injury that arose out of, or in the course of employment. The Court gave the example of “an injury sustained during a short work break- a tea break, for example- would typically (although, perhaps, not always) qualify”.  However, if the injury is sustained between discrete working periods, such as this where the employee was clearly engaged in social and not work-related activities, it is less likely to qualify as an injury arising out of the course of employment.

Therefore, employers must ensure that:

  • there is a clear understanding as to the extent of the work activities
  • there is a code of conduct (or similar) that sets out the expected behaviour whenever employees are working for or representing your organisation outside the confinement of an office environment
  • employees are provided with the organisation’s policy and code of conduct if they are required to work or attend a work-related function outside an office environment.