Sex activity is “in every sense a personal choice”.
Ordinarily this truism might not find its way into legal submissions and certainly not submissions by the Solicitor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. However, ordinarily injuries at work do not arise from a “vigorous” sex session in a motel bedroom.
Regular readers will recall the story so far in relation to this unfortunate “on the job” injury which raises important questions for personal injury and employment lawyers in the UK about the types of activities which can properly be said to arise out of or in the course of employment.
The respondent, a female public servant sued the Australian federal government after being injured while having sex on a work trip in a motel bedroom. The respondent’s partner’s evidence was that they were “going hard” when a glass light fitting came away from the wall above the bed striking her in the face and causing both physical and psychological injuries.
The appellant claimed compensation because her injuries were caused “during the course of her employment” as she had been instructed to travel to and spend the night in a motel in a small town in New South Wales ahead of a departmental meeting early the next day.
The respondent, Comcare, the Australian government's workplace safety body, rejected the claim on the grounds that sexual activity “was not an ordinary incident of an overnight stay like showering, sleeping or eating”. That decision was upheld by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
Nicholas J. allowed the appellant’s appeal - see PVYW v Comcare (No 2)  FCA 395. Comcare appealed to the full court of the Federal Court of Australia (FCA) which dismissed its appeal – see Comcare v PVYW  FCAFC 181.
In particular, the FCA rejected Comcare’s submission that an injured employee must show both that the injury occurred at a place where he or she was induced or encouraged by the employer to be and that the activity from which the injury arose was induced or encouraged by the employer or was implicitly accepted. It held that the potential conditions for liability were not conjunctive in the sense that an activity test should be super-imposed on a place test. There was no combined or two-stage test. There was a single test which may be satisfied in either one of two ways.
Comcare appealed to the High Court of Australia which on 30 October 2013 by a majority of 4-2 allowed the appeal and rejected the respondent’s claim for compensation – see Comcare v PVYW  HCA 41.
The judgment of the majority was given by Chief Justice French AC. The essential enquiry in each case was “how was the injury brought about?” Sometimes the injury will have occurred at and by reference to the place where the employee was. Usually, however, it will have occurred while the employee was engaged in an activity.
The majority held at  that “when an activity was engaged in at the time of injury, the question is: did the employer induce or encourage the employee to engage in that activity? When injury occurs at and by reference to a place, the question is: did the employer induce or encourage the employee to be there? If the answer to the relevant question is affirmative, then the injury will have occurred in the course of employment”.
It follows that where an activity was engaged in at the time of the injury, the relevant question is not whether the employer induced or encouraged the employee to be at the place where the injury ocurred because such inducement or encouragement is not relevant to the circumstances of the injury.
Put another way, an employer is not liable for an injury which occurs when an employee undertakes a particular activity if the employer has not in any way encouraged the employee to undertake that activity but has merely required the employee to be present at the place where the activity is undertaken.
Two justices dissented. Bell J. held at  that “consideration of the connection between the circumstances of the injury and the employment relation would be to add complexity at the cost of certainty and consistency”. Gageler J. agreed holding at  that “The particular activity in which the respondent was engaged at the time she was injured does not enter into the analysis”.
The High Court’s decision means that in Australia an employer will not become, in reality, an insurer for an employee in respect of any activity carried out at a place which the employee has been induced or encouraged by the employer to be. It also provides useful guidance to UK lawyers who may be called upon to deal with unusual work place related injuries.
The decision also restores certainty and structure to the law of employers' liability in Australia – something which was sadly lacking in the motel light fitting in question!