The Definition of “Accident” – Is it Open to Interpretation?

The New York Appellate Division recently issued a case (Matter of Brennan) that highlights the issue of accidents that occur in public areas – on your way to work. Although the decision was unfavorable to the injured worker, it did emphasize the point that the definition of “accident” is open to interpretation based on the facts surrounding the incident. In this particular case, the claimant sustained injuries to her chin and right hand. The claimant, employed by a state agency, parked her vehicle in a state-owned parking garage. She tripped and fell while walking on the sidewalk to her office – which was located one block away from the parking lot.

As a general rule, under the Workers’ Compensation Law, accidents that occur in public areas away from the workplace and outside of work hours are not compensable. Injuries sustained during normal travel to and from a fixed place of work, are not considered “accidents” as defined by Workers’ Compensation Law. In this case, however, the claimant was injured near the place of her employment. In such circumstances, there develops a gray area – where the risks of street travel merge with the risks attendant with employment. Therefore, the mere fact that the accident took place on a public road or sidewalk may not necessarily preclude an injured worker from claiming Workers’ Compensation benefits. Subsequently, within this “gray area”, injuries will be compensable only if two requirements are met: (1) there is a special hazard at the particular off-premises point and (2) there exists a close association of the access route with the premises, so far as going and coming are concerned. If both requirements above are met, then it is permissible to conclude that the accident happened as an incident and risk of employment, and the injuries to the claimant are compensable.

The Appellate Division, in this case, found no evidence of either any special hazard on the uneven sidewalk where claimant fell or a close association of the access route with the place of employment. Even though, the sidewalk was near the privately-owned building where the claimant worked – the building housed other businesses and a restaurant. Therefore, according to the court, the premise was not specifically controlled by the employer and was essentially open to the public. Additionally, there was no evidence that the employer encouraged use of the passage or that it existed for the sole purpose of providing access to the claimant’s workplace. For all the reasons stated above, it was found that the claimant’s accident did not occur in the course of her employment. This was an unfavorable decision for the injured worker – however, the case did highlight that how an “accident” is defined, is very much dependent on interpretation of the facts surrounding the incident.

As the case above shows that definition of “accident” is often open to interpretation – therefore, it is always better to consult with an attorney regarding any Workers’ Compensation issues. We encourage you to reach out to FOA if you feel that you have suffered an injury at work or you think you may have a medical condition that is work related.