Employers Aren’t Legally Liable is Staff’s Commute Goes Awry?

by Kara Dolan-West | Jun 18, 2014 | Workers' Compensation

For some central Ohio businesses, the winter of 2014 will go down as the season of locked doors and darkened windows.

Faced with dire forecasts, dangerous roads and diminished customer demand, a number of area employers have reduced hours, encouraged telecommuting or eliminated shifts.

While many of the closures have made sense from a business perspective, none of the weather-related shutdowns has been a legal necessity, experts agree.

That assessment might run counter to the conventional wisdom – or at least widespread wishful thinking – that employers take on some sort of legal liability by putting their workers in harm’s way.

Columbus resident Josh Marshall, who is studying to become a physician assistant, said employers should be held accountable. And the same goes, he said, for colleges and vocational programs that hold mandatory classes in spite of potentially unsafe conditions.

“If I’m risking my safety just to go to school – something that they required and asked of me – then, you know, why not be responsible for me and my vehicle safety?”

Unfortunately for Marshall and other central Ohioans who have spun their wheels (literally and figuratively) on snow-clogged streets this winter, it doesn’t work that way, especially in the employment arena.

“You’re not in the scope of your employment if you’re coming (to) or going from work,” said lawyer Rex Elliott, co-founder of Cooper & Elliott, a Columbus civil-litigation firm that handles labor and employment issues. “So there’s no responsibility on the employer.”

LegalSource360.com explains the concept in layman’s terms.

“If you were in a winter-weather-related accident on your way to the grocery store to buy milk and eggs, would you hold the grocer accountable for the accident? You can’t buy milk or eggs anywhere else, so you had to go there. What about if you are in an accident on the way to a sporting event? Do you hold the sports team accountable?”

The bottom line, according to the website: “Blame isn’t the same as legal responsibility.”

Tim Maurer, owner of Mukha Custom Cosmetics & Medi-Spa in the Short North, had no qualms about staying open in the aftermath of the storm that dumped more than 10 inches of snow on central Ohio a week and a half ago.

As far as he’s concerned, employees everywhere should show up whenever they’re summoned, regardless of weather.

“I think, in this climate of people needing jobs, you’d better get to work – or somebody else will.”

Employees aren’t powerless, legal analysts point out.

Ultimately, of course, they have to weigh whether the job is worth the risk associated with commuting to and from work. If they conclude that the risk is too great, they can stay home and deal with the fallout later, knowing full well that termination is a distinct possibility.

“Just because you work for someone who is inconsiderate doesn’t mean you should put your safety at risk,” LegalSource360 says. “It all boils down to personal decisions, and you need to decide what risks are appropriate for you to take.”