A Coffee Break Fall

The timeliness of decisions is a persistent discussion in the realm of litigation generally, and workers' compensation is not an exception. In a broader sense, the recently discussed Workgroup Report on Civil Cases (January 2022) noted some inclination for decision deadlines. 
Of course the topic has been around for many years in workers' compensation. See On Timelines and Deadlines (April 2014). Also of interest, there is some perception that delays may increase costs in some settings. See Simple Concepts, by Bill Zachry, recently published on workerscompensation.com. So, what is a reasonable time for a case to move to closure?
Some months ago, I received an article from the Washington Post, though the link I have is not to its site. The story relates an all-too-familiar instance of a worker having trip and fall. According to the National Safety Council, falls are a prevalent work-injury issue and are largely preventable. This one occurred in 2009, during a coffee break. That may remind some of the Valcourt-Williams v. Sedgwick decision, regarding a fall during such a break, and the questions some have raised about it. See It's not That the Wind is Blowin' (June 2021). 
When I see lawyers at conferences and meetings since that decision, there is less than unanimous consensus about "arising our of" and coffee breaks under the Florida law right now. While there are differing opinions, many are confident that clarification is on the horizon though. There are a number of decisions that have been appealed since Valcourt. 
The 2009 coffee-break fall in this story occurred in Italy. The defense asserted that the injury was "on her own time" and thus not compensable. The employer had no coffee machine or other facility for refreshment. The employee was given permission to leave the premises in search of some cafe. It sounds like "personal comfort" to many, but that is a "course and scope" framework not an "arising out of" parameter. The trial judge awarded benefits, and the "appeals court sided with" the worker. The carrier appealed to the Italian Supreme Court, which rendered its decision 12 years later.
The Italian Supreme Court "weighed in, concluding that coffee-break-related injuries are not workplace injuries." That is noteworthy. A national supreme court addressing workers' compensation is rare indeed. In addition to not prevailing in her claims for compensability, the article notes that the injured worker was also ordered by the court to "pay more than $6,000 in legal costs."
The Washington Post article concludes that the rule from the case is "seek coffee at your own risk." However, the real lesson is perhaps more obscure. The fundamental issue to be remembered about workers' compensation is that cases involve various facts and circumstances. Those facts are then controlled by various statutes and rules that may not be designed for any particular situation or incident. In the end, from any perspective, a case may not end the way one or more parties might like or even predict. There is always the perception for any party to sense a lack of fairness or balance when broad statutory constructs are applied to a particular set of facts. 
Litigation is uncertain at times. There are risks and benefits to litigation, and certainly there are costs. In the Florida system there are costs awardable to any "prevailing party." Section 440.34(3):
"If any party should prevail in any proceedings before a judge of compensation claims or court, there shall be taxed against the nonprevailing party the reasonable costs of such proceedings, not to include attorney’s fees."
One intriguing outcome of this in the context of workers' compensation is that a given case or trial might include multiple issues. It is possible that both parties will be the "prevailing party" as regards some discreet issue(s) in a particular trial. Then, it may devolve into a debate over what each should pay the other. There may also be interesting issues of enforcement of cost orders, see Orange County and Alternative Service Concepts v. Wilder.
And, those potential costs may cause either side some caution in proceeding with claims or defenses. Years ago, I had a prominent workers' compensation scholar challenge the Florida statute's application at a seminar. He explained confidently that only Florida had such a potential for an injured worker to be liable for such costs. This story demonstrates that there are at least two such jurisdictions in the mind-set of prevailing party costs. Perhaps there are others.
In all, an interesting reminder of the context of "arising out of" at least in the narrow construction of one case. As the law is applied it is possible that we will all learn more about the constraints of what workers' compensation does or does not include.
By Judge David Langham
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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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