Landmark ruling deems employer liable for an employee killed by her partner while working from home

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A recent landmark court ruling has deemed an employer liable for an employee who was killed by her partner while working from home in New South Wales.

The circumstances of the case are unique but, given the proliferation of employees working from home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the issue of employee safety when working from home is relevant.

Shelby Wells, of Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers, said the current working conditions of many people blurred the line between what occurred in the course of a worker’s employment and their personal life.

But a recent case heard by the NSW Court of Appeal has explored where that line is to be drawn. The case involved concurrent interpersonal issues between people who worked closely together, were in a relationship and raising children together.

Michel Carroll was killed by her de facto partner, Steven Hill, while working from their family home in NSW on June 16, 2010. Carroll and her partner were employed as financial advisers by family company S L Hill & Associates Pty Ltd.

Hill was charged with the murder of Carroll but was found not guilty on the grounds of mental illness.

Carroll’s workplace was inside the family home and her employment was deemed by the NSW Court of Appeal to be a substantial contributing factor to her being killed.

Carroll had two dependent children, a teenage son and a newborn baby, who made claims for death benefits under the Workers Compensation Act 1987 (NSW).

The company had been deregistered, so the workers compensation nominal insurer responded to and then denied the claims.

The Workers Compensation Commission determined Carroll died as a result of an injury arising in the course of her employment and payments were ordered for her children.

The nominal insurer appealed against this determination, claiming there was no causal link between her employment and death.

However, the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. It found that Carroll’s death occurred in the course of her employment, arose out of her employment and that her employment was a substantial contributing factor to her being killed.

According to Cooper Grace Ward Lawyers, the evidence showed that Carroll was on-call from about 7.30am at home, her bedroom contained work files, she worked throughout the house and was expected to answer phone calls. She was performing employment-related duties or on-call at the time she was killed.

Her de facto partner had paranoid delusions that related to the way Carroll performed her work duties at home. The evidence demonstrated a direct connection between his delusions, Carroll’s employment, and that she was killed by him.

The court found that Carroll’s employment was a predominant cause of her death. Her children were paid $450,000 in death benefits.

Wells said the tragic case of domestic and family violence highlighted that employers must consider much more than simple ergonomics when they had employees working from home.

“Usually there will be significant difficulty proving a causal connection between an injury caused by domestic violence and employment,” Wells said.

“However, this case demonstrates the novel situations that can arise when workers are allowed to work in an environment where the employer has less control.”

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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