According to recent media reports, on 29 November 2017, the Supreme People’s Court dismissed an appeal by the Haikou City Human Resources and Social Security Bureau disputing a lower court ruling that a teacher’s death should be deemed as a work injury after the teacher died at home while working overtime.
On 15 December 2011, the teacher administered a test from 8:30pm to 10:30pm and began correcting the student examination papers that night at home. The next morning, the teacher was found unresponsive at home and died at 9:30am after medical treatment failed.
On 23 May 2012, the Haikou bureau issued an administrative decision declaring that the teacher’s death was not a work injury. The decision was upheld by the upper-level administrative authority.
The teacher’s spouse filed a lawsuit in Haikou city. When the case reached the intermediate court, the court withdrew the administrative decision and ordered the Haikou bureau to issue a new decision. In response, the Haikou bureau merely affirmed its original decision. The teacher’s spouse filed an additional lawsuit and both the intermediate court and the provincial high court ruled against the Haikou bureau. The Haikou bureau then appealed to the Supreme People’s Court (SPC).
In its argument, the Haikou bureau cited article 15 of the Work-Related Injury Insurance Regulations, which states that an employee will be deemed to have suffered a work-related injury if the employee dies immediately or within 48 hours after emergency treatment from a disease arising during working hours on the job. The Haikou bureau argued that the teacher’s injury did not occur “during working hours” and did not occur “on the job” since the teacher died after returning home from work.
The SPC stated that the most important factor to determine whether an injury happens “during working hours” and “on the job” is whether the employee is acting in the employer’s interests when the injury is suffered. Thus, even if the employee is at home, working overtime for the employer’s interests still satisfies the requirement “during working hours on the job”.
In addition, the SPC interpreted article 15 to have expanded the scope of work injury by using the phrase “on the job” rather than the phrase “in the workplace”. The SPC further considered this interpretation to be consistent with the regulations’ aim of better protecting employees.
Finally, the SPC added that the Haikou bureau had relied on an irrelevant factor to rule that the teacher’s death was not a work injury. The Haikou bureau said that the teacher had violated the school’s prohibition against giving students tests at night, and therefore the teacher was not injured “during working hours on the job”. The SPC declared that the teacher’s violation of school policy was irrelevant because the work injury regulations have no statutory exception for injuries suffered while violating a company policy or rule.
Even though the SPC ruling does not bind lower courts, most lower courts will find the SPC’s position highly persuasive when ruling in similar cases. As such, employers should be prepared for employee injuries suffered at home while working on the employer’s behalf to be deemed as work injuries, even if the employer does not allow the employee to work overtime from home. As flexible working policies become more common, employers should be aware of this work injury liability risk when implementing their flexible working policies.
Business Law Digest is compiled with the assistance of Baker McKenzie. Readers should not act on this information without seeking professional legal advice. You can contact Baker McKenzie by e-mailing Danian Zhang (Shanghai) at [email protected]