Post-Termination Injuries and Workers’ Compensation Claims

Washington State law states that an injury that happens while the person is acting in the course of employment is a covered injury and it is not necessary that the worker is performing their assigned work task. But what happens if a worker is fired and, in the process of departing, sustains an injury post-termination? Is the worker still covered by the Industrial Insurance Act?

Can a fired employee still on the premise receive workers’ compensation?

In part, the workers’ compensation claim depends on where the injury was sustained. For this discussion, we will assume that there is no controversy about the premises and that all parties would agree that the injury occurred inside the boundaries of the employer’s place of business, and were it not for the termination of the worker, the claim would have been allowed.

In the Significant Board Decision of In re: Peter Earl Patterson, Docket No. 53,306, Claim No H-382516 (June 24, 1980), the worker was terminated and thereafter, a physical altercation ensued resulting in Mr. Patterson sustaining injury. The altercation took place while Mr. Patterson was demanding his paycheck before leaving. At the initial hearing, the Industrial Appeals Judge held that the worker was not entitled to coverage because Mr. Patterson was told he was terminated before the altercation began. However, on appeal, the full Board reversed.

Workers’ comp depends on the employer-employee relationship

The Board held that the mere utterance of the words terminating employment did not mark an end of the employer-employee relationship for Industrial Insurance purposes. Instead, the Board held that Mr. Patterson demanded to be paid for his work, that he had a right to demand payment for his work, that his employer acquiesced to Mr. Patterson’s demand for payment, it served as preserving the employer-employee relationship for Industrial Insurance coverage.

The Board reached this decision in citing to the State Supreme Court case of Perry v. Beverage, 121 Wash. 652 (1922), wherein the Court held that so long as the employee has demanded payment after having been told he or she has been terminated and remains lawfully on the employer’s premises, then the employee is still covered by Industrial Insurance.

Does it matter who the aggressor is?

The Board at one time looked at the question of who the aggressor was when a person has been terminated and then is injured following a physical altercation. This was formerly described as “the aggressor doctrine”. The basic idea was that if the individual is injured because they started the fight, they should not receive coverage. But the Board in the Patterson case disregarded this case, without expressly reversing it, but essentially looked at other facts to reach their conclusion.

However, the Board did note the statutory exceptions to coverage if the injured worker is injured while in the commission of a felony as set forth in RCW 51.32.020. This felony exception still applies. The Board has even gone as far as to reserve unto itself the right to consider whether grounds for establishing a felony exist, even in the absence of a conviction of a felony, for the sole purpose of denying coverage.

These cases are always fact dependent, and good fact gathering is important in determining whether Industrial Insurance coverage exists. However, what is clear is that there are no magic words stating whether a person is eligible for workers’ compensation. Obtaining competent legal counsel may be instrumental in the outcome of each case.