Maine Supreme Court “treadmill case” could signal trouble on the horizon for employers of work-from-home employees

Considering how common it is for employees to work from home offices and check work phones at home, the Sullwold decision could mean trouble on the horizon for employers.

Considering how common it is for employees to work from home offices and check work phones at home, the Sullwold decision could signal the start of a troubling trend for Maine employers.

Recently the Maine Law Court upheld an award of death benefits to the estate of a Salvation Army portfolio manager who died from a heart attack while walking on a treadmill in his home office.   He was found dead on a work day near a running treadmill, with a TV tuned to a financial news channel and his work-issued smartphone nearby. The Maine Workers’ Compensation Board hearing officer granted death benefits, finding the employer had failed to rebut the statutory “death presumption” under § 327 of the Maine Workers’ Compensation Act.   The death presumption provides in part, “In any claim for compensation, when the employee has been killed…there is a rebuttable presumption that the employee received a personal injury arising out of and in the course of employment…” The employer then appealed to the Appellate Division, questioning whether the hearing officer had applied the less strict standard in Toomey v. City of Portland, 391, A.2d 325 (Me. 1978), which requires the employer to prove it is at least as likely the injury did not arise out of and in the course of employment (i.e., 50% likely or less), or whether she applied the stricter standard in Hall v. State, 441 A.2d 1019 (Me. 1982) which requires the employer to prove it is more probable than not the injury did not arise out of and in the course of employment (i.e., 51% likely or more).   The Appellate Division found the hearing officer applied the less strict Toomey standard and upheld the finding that the employer failed to rebut the death presumption.  However, the Division went further, noting the stricter Hall standard remains good law and is the preferred standard going forward. The Law Court affirmed.  The Court first found the hearing officer did not err in finding the estate’s evidence triggered the § 327 death presumption.  The Court also found the hearing officer did not shift the burden of proof to the employer under Hall, but had instead applied the less strict Toomey standard.  Because the Toomey standard was more favorable to the employer than Hall, the Court found the employer would not have succeeded under either standard.  The Court therefore declined to address the nature of the burden necessary to rebut the death presumption. This case is significant for employers for several reasons.  First, it affirms the death presumption applies to employee deaths due to injuries sustained working from home offices.  The Law Court also treated the fact the employee’s work-issued smart phone was found near his body as evidence the injury arose in the course of employment.  Considering the prevalence of smartphones in today’s workforce, this decision could be the start of a troubling trend.  Finally, the Law Court did not rule on the burden needed to rebut the death presumption.  However, because the Appellate Division noted the stricter Hall standard is the preferred standard, employers will likely have to meet the stricter standard to rebut the § 327 death presumption going forward.

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