by Justice William W. Bedsworth
I am not a morning person.
I admire morning people. I envy them. I’ve coexisted with them all my life.1
I’ve also coexisted with snakes, spiders, vegetables, and Yankee fans. But only because I didn’t have a choice. The fact is morning people have an unfair advantage, and as someone who’s not fully conscious until around nine, I resent it.
This is a representative early morning exchange at my house: Kelly: “Get up, Beds, it’s ten to seven.” Beds: “Mmm . . .okay . . . uh, are we ahead by three or behind?”
It takes me awhile to get into gear. I picked up this morning’s paper and read, “Confident Spiders Surprise Iowa.” My still groggy mind went immediately to alien invasion and fears that the Iowans would be overwhelmed by the space spiders. Turned out the University of Richmond Spiders had upset Iowa in basketball last night.
Then I went to the front page2 where I read, “Cardinal testifies in lawsuit, a first.” I was hugely impressed. My grandmother had a parakeet who would occasionally tweet a few bars but testify in a lawsuit . . . now THAT’s impressive!
Turned out the lawsuit was being tried in the Vatican. But by the time I figured that out, my mind had formulated pictures of arachnids crawling out of a flying saucer (creepy) and a court clerk swearing in a bird (complete with upraised wing), and my little brain was reeling.
I really shouldn’t attempt to make sense of the world before I’ve had my morning cola. Others of my ilk do it with coffee, but I don’t drink coffee. I have the palate of a nine-year-old. I don’t drink anything grownups drink. Beer, wine, scotch, coffee . . . nope. If I didn’t drink it when I was nine, I don’t drink it now.3
So I get my morning caffeine from cola. Last time I looked, cola was the second most-popular breakfast drink in America. Not milk, not orange juice, not tea . . . cola. Folks like me who need that morning caffeine jump-start but think coffee’s highest and best use is flavoring ice cream drink a lot of morning colas.
I tell you all this so you can appreciate how much I identify with the German court that ruled workers’ compensation applied to a man who hurt himself getting out of bed. Now that we’re all doing so much of our work remotely, I may just move to Germany. They understand people like me there.4
Seems the German workers' comp applicant works at home. On the morning in question, he gamely climbed out of bed and started down the stairs to his home office. Nine steps later, he tripped on the stairs and fell, breaking a thoracic vertebra.5
Boy, can I identify with this! Every morning when I venture down the stairs to get the papers, I take my life into my hands. My eyes aren’t fully open and the messages from my brain to my feet seem to get there via Norwalk and San Luis Obispo. There but for the grace of God goes my vertebra.
But this guy alertly applied for workers comp. A German trial court said, “Hey, the guy’s workplace is in his home. He’s on his way to his workplace. German law covers that commute to the workplace. Ergo, he’s covered.”
I’m paraphrasing here. You have to paraphrase German or you end up with a bunch of words like “Gotterdamerung” and “Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversischerung” (a real word that means motor vehicle liability insurance) and, in this case, “Arbeiterunfallversicherungsgesetz,” which—so help me—is the name for the law that provides the German equivalent of workers’ comp, under which our guy sued.
Then the case went to the court of appeal. And—as I’m told courts of appeal are wont to do—they overthought it. They said something like, “What are you crazy? You don’t get workers’ comp in your living room. You fall down in the first two minutes you’re awake, you’re just SOL.”6
So, of course, it went to the Supreme Court—or the German equivalent, which in this case was the Federal Social Court. That court, endowed with the special brand of wisdom woven into the robes of members of courts of last resort, said, “Because this was his first trip of the day, because he typically began working BEFORE having breakfast, he is covered.”
Say what? If he goes to the bathroom first, he’s not covered?
Apparently not. They seem to have regarded that as a crucial aspect of the case. Because he always started work BEFORE HE HAD HIS COLA, because they knew what a trouper he had to be to go straight from his mattress to his word processor, he was covered. Clearly there were members of the Federal Social Court whose mornings resemble my own.
That’s the amazing aspect of this ruling to me: they limited coverage to that first trip. That bleary-eyed, near-somnambulant trek from the bedroom to the desk, that’s covered. The rest of the day is not! They specifically referenced the pandemic and people working at home yet still limited coverage to the first trip to your desk.
They said if you start work without incident and then hurt yourself on your way to the kitchen for breakfast, that trip is not covered. So you’re covered on your way to the workplace, but if you hurt yourself AT the workplace, you’re—to use the technical American legal term again—SOL.
Can you imagine the first company lawyer to try to use this precedent to try to defeat liability?
The Federal Social Court says if you get hurt while walking to the kitchen in your home, you’re not covered. The plaintiff here was walking to the break room in the office—clearly the equivalent of the kitchen in the home-office—when the cow fell through the ceiling and landed on him.7 By parity of reasoning, he’s not covered. Ipso facto. Quo warranto. Danke schoene.
I just know this issue will eventually find its way to me. The interwebs have made my job much tougher. Attorneys who used to scour books for ideas are now maneuvering around the web like confident spiders. Much easier. All of a sudden their law libraries include eighteen gazillion volumes with incredibly great indexing. They’re citing me cases from Iowa, Indiana, India, Indonesia, anyplace some court somewhere somehow has bought into a new argument.8
If it involved space spiders or talking birds, it would probably go to the feds; they grab all the alien being cases9 and I’m pretty sure when the first bird testifies, it’ll be in a federal court. But workers’ compensation . . . that’ll be ours.
And I’ll be trying to figure out how to distinguish tripping on your stairs from tripping in your kitchen. I just hope I don’t have to do it before 10:00 a.m.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at email@example.com.