Australia: There's no place like home (office): Court considers the applicability of the CLA to journey claims when working from home - 24 March 2016

The recent decision of the Queensland Court of Appeal in Farnham v Pruden & Anor [2016] QCA 18 explores the distinctions between home and "place of work" in the context of journey claims. It also confirms that the courts are very willing to make no allowance for damages for future economic loss even when the occurrence of an injury and liability is not in dispute.

Senior Associate Jacqi Marshall and Solicitor Matthew Boyce discuss the decision further in the following article.

Legislative Perspective

Historically, assessment of quantum for damages under the Civil Liability Act 2003 (CLA) and the Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2003 (WCRA) differed significantly due to the restrictions on various heads of damage imposed by the CLA. It is frequently the case that a claim against an employer under the WCRA involves a concurrent public liability claim or (less frequently) a CTP claim. A common example is a labour hire employee who is injured whilst working for a host employer. To avoid any disadvantage in the assessment of damages under the two regimes, section 5 of the CLA disengages the CLA in circumstances where the injury was one for which compensation was payable under the WCRA. The exception to this was injuries to which sections 34(1)(c) or 35 applies, being recess and journey claims.

On 1 July 2010, however, the WCRA was significantly amended with a number of the amendments being analogous with the provisions of the CLA. Despite this, section 5 of the CLA has not been amended and now a public liability respondent (who would normally avail itself of the restrictions on damages under the CLA) is exposed to unfettered common law damages while an employer is able to avail itself of the restrictions under the WCRA.

Because of the advantages to a plaintiff in disengaging the CLA, there have been a number of decisions relevant to the issues with the Court of Appeal decision in Farnham v Pruden being the latest.

The Case

The plaintiff was injured when the vehicle she was driving was rear-ended by another vehicle, causing her vehicle to be pushed into the vehicle in front of her. The plaintiff subsequently suffered a minor cervical spine injury and also developed an adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood.

At the time, the plaintiff was employed as a community support worker. She worked from home but was required to regularly travel from her home to the homes of clients in order to perform her duties. It was during this travel to her first appointment of the day that the claimant was injured.

At First Instance – Applicable Scheme

As noted above, if the injury is one for which compensation is payable under the WCRA, the CLA is disengaged despite the employer not being a party to the proceedings. The exception is recess and journey claims with journey claims, particularly section 35(1)(a), being of relevance in this claim. That section relevantly provides:

35 Other Circumstances
  1. "An injury to a worker is also taken to arise out of, or in the course of, the worker's employment if the event happens while the worker –
    1. is on a journey between the worker's home and place of employment;
  1. For subsection (1), a journey from or to the worker's home starts or ends at the boundary of the land on which the home is situated.
  2. In this section –
  3. home, of a worker, means the worker's usual place of residence...."

The plaintiff asserted that she was travelling in the course of her employment as she worked from home and had logged onto her employer's network prior to leaving home to attend on a client. She noted that she was also paid for her travel time and kilometres travelled. Accordingly, she asserted, her claim did not fall within s35(1)(a) and therefore the CLA was disengaged.

His Honour did not believe it was necessary to determine if the plaintiff's claim was a journey claim pursuant to section 35(1)(a) of the WCRA. He found that even if it was not a journey claim, the plaintiff would not fall within section 32 of the WCRA as she would not satisfy the requirement of work being a significant contributing factor to the injury. Accordingly the CLA would not be disengaged and damages should be assessed pursuant to the CLA.

At First Instance – Assessment of Damages

The most significant of the plaintiff's injuries was the development of an adjustment disorder. The plaintiff resigned from her job some months after the accident and gave evidence that her resignation was due to psychological injuries sustained as a result of the accident. Economic loss flowing from the alleged psychological injury and resignation formed the bulk of the claim.

The medical records of the plaintiff showed that she had experienced a number of significant stressors, wholly unrelated to her motor vehicle accident, both prior to and in the months after the motor vehicle accident. His Honour found, consistent with the opinions of various medical professionals and experts, it was the plaintiff's non-accident related stressors which caused the development of her adjustment disorder. As such, while the plaintiff's overall claim was successful, she had not established the accident caused any residual loss to her earning capacity. She was awarded just $47,389.75 in damages which encompassed no allowance for any future economic loss.

On Appeal

The plaintiff appealed a number of aspects of the decision asserting the trial judge had, among other things, erred in applying the CLA in assessing her damages.

The Court of Appeal upheld the views of the District Court but additionally made a finding regarding whether the injury was one within section 35(1)(a) of the WCRA.

It found the plaintiff's assertion that her home was also her "place of work" was incorrect. In this regard, it was decided the mere fact the plaintiff performed some work from her home did not mean the location lost its character as being the plaintiff's home. For the plaintiff's home to have been considered a 'place of work', it would need to have been occupied, managed or controlled by her employer. As this was not the case, when she was injured, the plaintiff was travelling from home to a place of work and the injury fell within section 35(1)(a) of the WCRA and the provisions of the CLA therefore applied.

In relation to the alternative finding at first instance that the injury did not fall within section 32 of the WCRA because employment was not a significant contributing factor to the injury, the Court of Appeal also upheld the District Court's decision.

With regards to the issue of future economic loss, the Court of Appeal agreed the evidence derived from records and medical experts suggested non-accident related stressors caused the plaintiff to develop her adjustment disorder. As there was no impairment of her working capacity by any accident-related consequence of her injury, there was no principled basis upon which to conclude there should be any allowance for future economic loss.

Key Points

  • A successful claim brought in respect of a personal injury does not necessarily translate to a global allowance for future economic loss.
  • It is vital to gather all medical records both prior to and subsequent to the subject injury so that expert witnesses get a more complete picture of the situation rather than relying predominantly on the plaintiff's self-report.
  • The mere fact an employee works from home does not automatically turn that home into a 'place of work'. In this regard, however, we note that the cases will turn on their own facts.

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