Workers' Compensation: Is Your Injury or Illness Work Related?

Learn about the rules for deciding whether employees’ injuries or illnesses are related to their jobs and covered by workers’ comp.

By , Attorney · University of North Carolina School of Law
Updated by E.A. Gjelten, Legal Editor

If you are seeking workers' compensation benefits, you'll have to show that your injury or illness is work related—or, in workers' comp legalese, "arising out of employment and occurring during the course of employment" (AOE/COE).

Usually, if you were doing something for the benefit of your employer, and you were injured or became ill as a result, then your injury or illness is work related and you can receive benefits (as long as you meet the other eligibility requirements).

The AOE/COE requirement may seem like a simple rule, but it can get tricky. Some common situations are covered below.

Can You Get Workers' Comp for an Injury That Occurred Over a Lunch Break?

Usually, injuries that happen on an employee's lunch break are not considered work-related. For example, you probably can't claim workers' comp for spraining your ankle while walking to a deli to pick up your lunch (or lunch for your coworkers). But the injury might be covered if you were also picking up lunch for your boss.

If you were hurt while eating lunch on the company's premises (especially in an employee cafeteria or lunchroom), the injury will generally be considered work-related. But it probably won't be covered if you were doing something during the lunch break that wasn't allowed or fell within other exceptions to workers' comp coverage.

For instance, in a case where an employee was injured during one of her regular lunch-hour "power walks" on company grounds, a Connecticut court found that the injury was "incidental" to her employment but came within the exception in state law for voluntary recreational activities. (Brown v. United Technologies Corp., 963 A.2d 1072 (Conn. Ct. App. 2009)).

Workers' Comp for Injuries at Company Events

Many companies sponsor special events like parties, picnics, or baseball games. Injuries sustained at these events are usually considered work related. But some states make an exception if the employer doesn't expect employees to participate in the off-duty events.

Workers' Comp for Injuries While Traveling for Business

Under what's known as the "going and coming rule," workers' comp generally doesn't cover injuries sustained during your commute to or from work. There are exceptions to this rule, however, including when you're:

  • driving a company vehicle
  • required to bring your own car for business use during the work day
  • doing special errands for your employer
  • traveling on a business trip, or
  • an employee who regularly travels for work or doesn't have a regular, fixed work site (such as traveling salespeople going to meet customers or health workers going to the homes of care recipients).

Workers' Comp While Working From Home

As more and more employees work from home at least some of the time, the question of workers' comp eligibility for at-home injuries has been raised frequently. The answer depends on the laws in your state and the facts of your case.

In general, if you suffer an injury while you're working from home and it was arguably work-related, you'll be eligible for workers' comp. For example, if you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome related to work-related typing, you'll probably be covered. If you fall down the stairs while walking to your home office, that might be covered as well. Falling off a ladder while you're trimming the trees in your yard during work hours? Not covered.

Misconduct and Workers' Comp Benefits

If you were injured while breaking a workplace safety rule or while doing something else that your employer has prohibited, your injury might still be covered by workers' comp, depending on the level of your misconduct and where you live. This is part of the workers' compensation bargain: Employees do not have the right to sue their employer for work-related injuries, but those injuries are usually covered by workers' comp, regardless of fault.

There are some exceptions to this general rule. Workers' comp usually doesn't cover injuries that happen because the employee was drunk or using illegal drugs. Several states also rule out workers' comp coverage when the injured employees were:

  • trying to hurt themselves or someone else
  • committing a serious crime
  • fooling around ("horseplay"), or
  • breaking a workplace rule on purpose.

However, courts may consider injuries involving rule-breaking or horseplay to be work related if the employer knew about and condoned the behavior, or it was a common or accepted part of the working environment.

Illnesses, Cumulative Injuries, and Stress-Related Conditions

Workers' comp may also cover cumulative injuries developed over time (such as repetitive strain or stress injuries or RSIs), occupational diseases and other illnesses resulting from on-the-job exposure, and physical or psychological illnesses resulting from workplace stress.

But in these cases, it may be difficult to prove that the injury or illness is work related—especially in the case of infectious diseases. The rules may also vary from state to state, especially when it comes to stress-related and emotional illnesses. Learn more about injuries and illnesses covered by workers' compensation.

If your work aggravated or "lit up" a pre-existing condition, the aggravation will probably be considered a work-related injury.

Speaking With a Workers' Comp Lawyer

If your injury or illness falls into a gray area for workers' comp coverage, it would be a good idea to consult with an attorney to find out whether you might be eligible for benefits.

An experienced workers' comp lawyer can explain how your state's laws apply to your particular situation. (To learn about your legal options if you aren't eligible for workers' comp, see When You Can Sue Outside of Workers' Compensation.)

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