The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased an already significant trend of workers working from home. This blurs the line between what occurs in the course of a worker’s employment and their personal life.
The recent case of Workers’ Compensation Nominal Insurer v Hill  NSWCA 54 explores employee safety when working from home and where that line is to be drawn. The scenario in this tragic case is unique in that it involved concurrent interpersonal issues between people that both worked closely together, and were in a relationship and raising children together.
Michel Carroll and Steven Hill were de facto partners, employed as financial advisers by a family company, S L Hill & Associates Pty Ltd, which carried on its business from the family home in New South Wales.
Mr Hill suffered from paranoid delusions that Ms Carroll was conspiring to steal his clients and ruin him. On 16 June 2010, Mr Hill killed Ms Carroll. He was charged with her murder but was found not guilty on the grounds of mental illness.
Ms Carroll had two dependent children, a teenage son and a newborn baby. The children made claims for death benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Act 1987 (NSW). As the company had been deregistered, the Workers’ Compensation Nominal Insurer responded to and denied the claims.
Workers’ Compensation Commission decision
At first instance, the Workers’ Compensation Commission determined Ms Carroll died as a result of an injury arising in the course of her employment, in accordance with the Workplace Injury Management and Workers Compensation Act 1998 (NSW). Payments were ordered in favour of the children.’
The Nominal Insurer appealed against the Commission’s determination to the Deputy President, who dismissed the appeal. The Insurer then appealed to the NSW Court of Appeal on the basis that there was no causal link between employment and Ms Carroll’s assault and subsequent death.
NSW Court of Appeal decision
The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, finding that Ms 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 death. The key reasons were as follows:
- The evidence showed that Ms Carroll was working from home, was on-call from about 7:30 am, her bedroom contained work files, she worked throughout the house and was expected to answer phone calls. Therefore, she was either performing employment related duties or on-call at the time she was killed.
- Mr Hill’s paranoid beliefs related to the way Ms Carroll performed her work duties, which led him to kill her. Ms Carroll’s employment was therefore a predominant cause of her /death.
- The evidence demonstrated a direct connection between Mr Hill’s delusions, Ms Carroll’s employment, and her death.
The Court of Appeal upheld the Commission’s decision to pay $450,000 in death benefits to the dependent children.
The scenario in this tragic case is unique in that it involved concurrent interpersonal issues between people that both worked closely together, and were in a relationship and raising children together.
The Court of Appeal’s decision highlights that an employer must consider more than simply ergonomics when an employee is working from home.
Psychological stressors and domestic issues are also important considerations. Usually there will be significant difficulty proving a causal connection between an injury caused by domestic violence and employment. 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.