The commuting rule and its exceptions
Workers' compensation provides benefits to employees experiencing work-related injuries, which benefits are paid without regard to fault. In other words, this system, which is administratively managed, takes the place of the court system, where one is required to file a civil lawsuit and prove that the other party intentionally or negligently (that is, recklessly) caused their injuries. More specifically, as stated by the state Workers' Compensation Commission, it covers "accidents that arise out of and in the course of employment."
But what, exactly, is "the course of employment"? To take one situation, an employee who commutes to work is usually not regarded as being in the scope of employment. If such an employee has an accident while so commuting, he or she is normally on their own, and may not receive workers' compensation benefits.
However, this rule provides for many exceptions. An exception is frequently found when the injury is the result of a peril related to employment, whether or not it occurred at the worksite.
Recent case law
A recent state supreme court case, The Venture-Newberg-Perini, Stone & Webster v. Illinois Workers' Compensation Comm'n, decided in December of 2013, helps explain the "commuting rule" and what is, and what is not, covered by it. In this case, a pipefitter had a temporary job, which he secured by using a contracting firm, working at a plant which was located 200 miles away from his home. Because of the distance involved, he rented a room at a motel near the plant. As he was driving to work one morning, his vehicle skidded off the road and crashed, and the worker suffered serious injuries.
The workers' compensation claim was initially denied by the arbitrator, stating that the accident took place while the worker was commuting, not while the worker was on the job. This decision was reversed by the Workers' Compensation Commission, which found that "the course or method of travel" was the result of the job's demands, not the personal preference of the worker. The Illinois Appellate Court also ruled in the worker's favor.
The Illinois Supreme Court, ruling 6 to 1, reversed the decision of the appellate court, stating that an employee injured while commuting cannot collect workers' compensation, even if the employer was staying in a motel in order to be close to his workplace. The court stated that the worker decided to take the job, knowing of the commute, and that the worker was not compensated for the expense or the time spent commuting, and that the worker was not directed to commute to work by a certain route.
The lesson to be learned from this recent case may be that injuries occurring as the result of a commute to or from work may be compensable if the employer somehow directs or controls the employee as to the specifics of the commute, or reimburses the employee for the commute. But if the employer remains silent and allows the employee to determine the method of commuting, then the injuries are probably not compensable.
If you are injured while going to or from work, you should not automatically assume that you cannot collect workers' compensation benefits. Instead, you should consult with an experienced workers' compensation attorney, who will help you determine whether your injury occurred in the "course of employment" and, thus, whether you are entitled to file a claim for benefits.