When are injuries during travel considered compensable in New Jersey workers’ compensation? The easy way to understand the law in New Jersey is to remember two basic rules:
When an employee arrives on work premises, workers’ compensation coverage begins, and when the employee leaves the premises, coverage ends.
When an employer requires an employee to be AWAY from work premises and that employee is engaged in the direct performance of work duties, there is workers’ compensation coverage.
Some examples may be helpful in explaining these rules:
Question: What if a police officer is permitted to take a municipal vehicle home and drives to work in the morning in uniform when another driver strikes the police vehicle causing injury? Is this covered?
Answer: No, because the officer is just like any other employee on the way to work. Since the officer has not reached the municipally-owned premises, there is no workers’ compensation coverage. Note that if the officer was injured responding to an emergency on the way to work, it would be covered.
Question: What if the police officer works from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. but then gets called back to the municipal offices for evening court and is injured in a car accident? Is this covered?
Answer: Again, no coverage because the employee is just on the way to the employer’s place of business.
Question: What if a police officer is directed to report in the morning to a neighboring town for a shared services meeting, and on the way the officer is injured in a car accident?
Answer: Yes, this is covered because the officer in this instance was required to be away from work premises.
Question: The assistant to the zoning officer is asked to stop at a popular donut shop on the way to work to get coffee and donuts for the monthly work review meeting. In the donut shop the assistant falls and fractures her knee. Is there workers’ compensation coverage?
Answer: Yes, because the employee was in the direct performance of the assigned mission when the injury took place.
Question: Suppose the assistant township manager is approved to travel to Nashville, Tennessee for a seminar on municipal budgeting. While driving from Nashville Airport to the hotel, a car accident occurs resulting in injuries to the manager. Are the manager’s injuries covered for workers’ compensation?
Answer: Yes. The entire trip is part of the requirement to be away from work premises.
Question: In the above case, suppose the assistant is in the hotel where the seminar is taking place, having breakfast before the session, and the chair suddenly breaks, causing the assistant manager to fall and fracture her spine. Is this covered?
Answer: Court cases have held that having a meal in the hotel where a conference is taking place is part of the required assignment, and, therefore, there is coverage.
Question: An employee of the DPW is supposed to spend the day checking pumping stations all over town. He does not work in an office. He takes a morning break and stops at a local WAWA for a cup of coffee. In the parking lot he trips and falls, breaking his hip. Is this covered?
Answer: Yes, courts have ruled that employees who don’t work in any formal office setting and travel most of the day have the same right to morning, lunch and afternoon breaks that office employees would have.
Does this mean that any time an employee on the road stops somewhere for a meal that he or she is covered? Not exactly. There is also a common sense rule regarding deviations from employment that New Jersey courts follow. Recently the Appellate Division decided a case directly on point in Mackoff v. New Brunswick Saw Service, A-3625-19 (App. Div, July 14, 2021).
The case involved an injury to Mr. Mackoff, a salesman and account manager for New Brunswick Saw Services. One of his duties was to travel to the company’s clients for meetings and service calls. On December 3, 2018, Mackoff left his home in Blackwood, Camden County, New Jersey and drove to West Caldwell in North Jersey for a 10:00 a.m. customer meeting. Following the one-hour meeting, he decided to drive to the Galloping Hill Inn in Kenilworth, New Jersey for lunch. He had been going to that restaurant for many years, and he loved their hot dogs. After lunch he said he planned to go to the company office in Middlesex County because he had not been to the office for a while.
In testimony petitioner said the Galloping Hill Inn was like a “nostalgia place” for him. He also commented that he was theoretically going to prospect because the restaurant had slicers for sandwiches. That’s what his company did. He called the Inn a “potential customer.” However, he admitted on cross examination that the Galloping Hill Inn was never really a customer of his company, and he was not meeting anyone there. He also had no other customers to visit around the Inn. On the way to the restaurant he was involved in a car accident.
The court held that Mr. Mackoff’s injuries were not covered. He was not prospecting at all for business. He simply liked this distant restaurant. He had concluded his work day when he left the client and embarked on a very long ride, far out of the way to his New Brunswick office, and he was now engaged in a personal mission. Another way to say it is that this employee had deviated from his employment assignment.
We should consider a slight change in the facts here. Suppose Mr. Mackoff had been driving straight from the client’s premises to the New Brunswick office location and stopped for a cup of coffee or a meal along the way. In that case the court would likely have found the stop to be compensable since Mr. Mackoff’s job involved constant travel, and he seldom worked in an office. He would have the same right to take necessary breaks as any on-premises employee would.
The two rules above answer most questions on cases involving on and off-premises injuries. Obviously injuries on premises are almost always covered unless there simply is no connection to work (example, no connection to work where the employee decides during a break to jump rope at work and trips and fall, breaking a bone in the arm). For off-premises injuries, one must focus on whether the employer required the employee to be away from the employer’s place of employment and the employee was engaged in the direct performance of work duties when the injury occurred.
John H. Geaney
Capehart Scatchard, P.A.