Traveling for business: Will workers’ comp cover you if Ebola strikes?

EBOLA: We all know what it is by now. Certain West African countries are being ravaged by the disease. American health-care workers have contracted the disease in West Africa. The disease arrived in Dallas, Texas, carried by a traveler from Liberia who later died. Later, it arrived in New York. Recent news headlines were unavoidable: "Doctor at New York Hospital Tests Positive for Ebola Virus." A doctor who lives in the Harlem neighborhood of the city arrived back from New Guinea and began displaying symptoms within days of arrival and was confirmed to have the disease.

Ebola is not the only disease that travelers to faraway places have to be concerned about-African trypanosomiasis ("sleeping sickness"), cholera, hepatitis A:, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, malaria, tuberculosis, and others. One question that has been asked is whether an employee on business in a foreign country is covered by New York workers' compensation for the costs of treatment and lost wages if a disease is contracted.

How workers' compensation laws apply

There are several threshold questions that arise in any workers' compensation claim-one is whether there is a covered injury-meaning one that arose out of and in the course of employment. Usually the answer to this question is obvious where an accident occurs on the actual premises of an employer while the employee is engaged in the duties assigned to him or her. Thus, by analogy, an technologist/trainee who pricked herself while testing blood of an HIV-infected patient, thereby contracting both tuberculosis and the HIV virus, was found to be limited to the remedies provided by workers' compensation.

A person employed by a New York entity is considered to be in the course of his or her employment when he or she is traveling on business. Contracting a contagious disease, such as Ebola, while engaging in business while traveling would, generally speaking, be considered a job-related injury and would be entitled to compensation.

There are, however, no recent reported New York cases which provide a clear road map to establishing a workers' compensation claim in such cases. In an earlier case [Altman v. Hazan Import Corp.], a claimant left on a six-week buying trip to Thailand scouting handbags. In Phuket she was killed when the motorbike she was operating went off a cliff. The question was whether she was on her way to actually conduct business or a recreational side trip. The answer in that case based on the facts was that she was conducting business and workers' compensation applied. In another earlier case [Spoerl v. Armstrong Pumps Inc.], a claimant was on a business trip to England and became ill. He was diagnosed as having a virus but became unconscious during the flight bank to the U.S. He was later found to have a rare and deadly infection of the heart valves. The workers' compensation law judge held that the claimant had failed to establish that he contracted his disease while on the business trip, as opposed to contracting it in the United States. Clearly being able to establish facts connecting any contagious disease to work-related activity is essential to establish a workers' compensation claim.

Seeking an attorney's assistance

Contracting a contagious disease, such as Ebola, while travelling abroad for work raises complex workers' compensation legal issues and anyone who finds themselves in such a position should seek the representation of an experienced New York workers' compensation attorney.