Firefighter Wins Workers’ Compensation Claim For Injury Suffered While Trimming Wisteria At Home

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This article appears in the February issue of our monthly newsletter, Public Safety Labor News.

Richard Warner is a firefighter employed by Los Angeles County, California. Since Warner has served as a firefighter specialist at Fire Station 55 on Catalina Island, off the coast of California, the work schedule is unique. Both Warner and his captain, the only other employee permanently assigned to Catalina Island, are required to live on the island to respond to emergency incidents 24 hours per day. The captain and his family live at Fire Station 55.

Warner works scheduled times at the fire station during weekdays. When not working, Warner is required to be available 24 hours per day in order to respond to emergency incidents. Warner responds to calls from his home 26 weekends per year, and responds to calls from his home more than from the fire station. Ninety percent of the calls for assistance come from locations closer to Warner’s home than to the fire station which is at the end of a road through town.

Catalina Island residents know Warner is a firefighter and sometimes go to Warner’s house to request assistance when they see the fire truck parked on the street outside his home. When the residents go to Warner’s house for assistance, they have to walk through a wisteria-laden path.

On Sunday, February 14, 2010, Warner was on duty at home. Warner did some inventory work of search and rescue team pagers in his home office before leaving to check on the equipment in the fire truck. As Warner was going down the front stairs of his house, his wife asked him to help her trim the wisteria. The wisteria grows in front of his house and in the pathways. Because wisteria grows everywhere, it will hit everyone in the face if it is not trimmed. To assist his wife, Warner climbed up a ladder to trim the wisteria. Part of the trellis gave way, and Warner fell off the ladder and injured himself. Warner sustained injury to his neck, back, and left elbow, wrist and shoulder.

Warner appealed to the California Court of Appeals the County’s rejection of his workers’ compensation claim. The Court overturned the County’s decision and ordered that Warner’s claim be granted.

Under California’s workers’ compensation laws, employees are entitled to benefits if their injuries occur when “the employee is performing service growing out of and incidental to his or her employment and is acting within the course of his or her employment.” The Court found that Warner’s wisteria trimming was “incidental to his employment”:

“It is undisputed Warner was on duty at his residence when he injured himself. Warner is required to work at home every other weekend because there is no place for him to stay at the fire station. Before he was injured, Warner had just finished some paperwork in his home office and was on his way to inspect the equipment on the fire truck. On his way to the fire truck, Warner’s wife asked him to help her trim the wisteria. The wisteria grows in front of his house and in the pathways; it will hit everyone in the face if it is not trimmed. It is uncontested that Catalina Island residents sometimes go to Warner’s home for help when they believe he is at home because they know he is a firefighter.

“When residents go to Warner’s house for assistance, they have to walk through a wisteria-laden path. In addition, Warner receives dispatch calls from his home, which is closer to the town, and is required to respond to emergency calls from his residence on the weekends and after work hours. Although the wisteria has not prevented him from reaching the fire truck, it grows wild everywhere and looks better trimmed because it is visible from the street. It also is undisputed that the County requires its firefighters to maintain the fire station grounds, including trimming bushes, as part of their employment duties.

Trimming the wisteria ensures residents have safe access to Warner’s house and allows him to reach his fire truck in a safe and timely manner when responding to emergency calls. No doubt, Warner trimmed the wisteria at his wife’s request. But this does not negate that the activity was impliedly authorized by the County because it is undisputed that island residents sometimes go to Warner’s home for help. By trimming the wisteria, Warner was engaging in an activity that benefited both himself and his employer.”

Warner v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, 2011 WL 6762898 (Cal. App. 2 Dist. 2011).