Thomas A. Robinson on Workers' Compensation Bunkhouse Rule: Vaught v. State of Calif.

The bunkhouse rule--the doctrine that broadens the ordinary course and scope of ones employment so as to include injuries occurring when the employee may be off-the-clock, but living in employer-provided housing--is sometimes dismissed as a throwback to an early era of isolated logging and mining camps. Indeed, the rule appears so out of step with our modern work force that seems so dominated by white-collar offices, nanotechnology, outsourcing, and telecommuting.

 A recent case from California reminds us that the doctrine is alive and well, and that it has two sides: one that expands workers compensation coverage, another that contracts potential tort liability on the part of the employer. In Vaught v. State of California, 157 Cal.App.4th 1538 (December 18, 2007), a state appellate court faced what is sometimes referred to as an upside-down bunkhouse rule case--a case in which it wasnt the injured worker who argued that the rule applied, but rather, the employer argued that the rule barred the worker and the workers spouses civil action against it.

This expert commentary by Thomas A. Robinson analyzes the case, discusses relevant issues related to workers and employer-provided housing, observes that there is a direct parallel between the bunkhouse rule and the Defense Base Acts Zone of Special Danger doctrine, and concludes that Vaught is an important decision because it reiterates two important facets of the bunkhouse rule--that the rule is not defeated by the payment of rent by the employee, nor is it inoperative if the employee retains some option to live elsewhere, yet chooses employment-provided housing.

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