Most workers know that the daily drive from home to work and from work to home is not covered for workers’ compensation purposes. But where does that rule come from? Before 1979 it came from case law which created the concept of the “going-and-coming rule.” In 1979 the New Jersey Legislature decided to retire the long-standing going-and-coming rule because there were so many exceptions to the rule that the rule was no longer meaningful. Instead the Legislature renamed the rule and simplified it, calling it the “premises rule.” Indeed, the premises rule is much simpler to apply. It basically means what it says: an employee is covered when he or she arrives at the employer’s premises for work purposes and is not covered when the employee leaves the employer’s premises.
That sounds simple enough, right? Yes and no. Even the premises rule needs further clarification. Among the key questions are “What exactly is the employer’s premises?” and “What about special assignments away from work?” Let’s deal first with these two issues: work premises and special assignments.
The statute defines the employer’s premises as that which is owned or controlled by the employer. If you are injured on property owned or controlled by the employer, you are injured at work. For example, if the township clerk slips and falls getting out of the car on ice in the municipal parking lot, the injury is covered for workers’ compensation because the clerk has reached the work premises. Note that an injury in a municipal parking lot is treated the same as an injury at one’s desk for workers’ compensation purposes. By the same token, if an employee were to park just off the municipal premises in the public street and slipped and fell on non-municipal property, he or she would not be covered for workers’ compensation.
The exception for special assignments has two parts. The statute says that the employee is covered “when the employee is required by the employer to be away from the employer’s place of employment” while the employee is “engaged in the direct performance of duties assigned or directed by the employer.” N.J.S.A. 34:15-36. The first part is the requirement that the travel be away from the place of employment, and the second part is the requirement that the injury occur while doing the assigned task. So if the township administrator gets to work and then must travel to the county administration building later that morning, the commute to the county administration building is considered covered because the administrator is required to be away from the work premises.
Here are some common questions that arise in the context of public employment with respect to workers’ compensation coverage.
- What if a police officer is permitted to take her police car home every day and drives it to the police station in the morning, only to have a car accident on the highway? Assume that the police officer is in full uniform driving a municipal vehicle when the accident occurs. The answer to this question comes from the case of Perry v. State Dept. of Law and Public Safety, which says that there is no workers’ compensation coverage because this is just the employee’s normal commute like any other person’s normal commute to work.
- What if a municipal first responder leaves his home to respond to an emergency and has an accident along the way? The statute is clear that this travel is covered. “Travel for a policeman, fireman, or a member of a first aid or rescue squad, in responding to and returning from an emergency, shall be deemed to be in the course of employment.” The applicable statute is once again N.J.S.A. 34:15-36.
- Suppose the township administrator leaves work at 4:00 p.m., goes home and has dinner and then has to drive back to the township building for a scheduled council meeting at 8:00 p.m. and has an accident along the way? The answer is that there is no coverage because the administrator is driving to work. The special assignment exception only applies if one is driving “away from the employer’s place of employment.” But one might ask, what if the administrator is driving a township owned vehicle at the time of the accident? That does not change the outcome because courts view employer-owned vehicles as perks. The ownership of the vehicle is irrelevant to coverage for workers’ compensation purposes.
- What if a municipal employee walks across the street to get a sandwich at noon and slips and falls in the street just a few feet from the municipally owned property? Answer: this fall is not covered under workers’ compensation since the fall occurred off premises.
- Suppose a public works employee’s job requires him to drive all day long, checking pumping stations and other municipally owned utilities. He doesn’t work inside any building. One day he takes his normal morning coffee break and stops at a Starbucks store. He purchases some coffee and while leaving the store to get back into his work truck, he slips and breaks his leg. Would this injury be covered? Yes, because there are several cases that have been decided over the years that make clear that just as on-premises employees are entitled to coffee breaks, so too off-premises employees are entitled to such breaks. This exception is often applied in the trucking industry since truck drivers also do not report to any work premises.
- What if the township administrator asks her secretary to stop on the way to work to pick up donuts for a scheduled municipal meeting. The secretary leaves home and drives out of her way to a bakery and is injured in a car accident on the way to the bakery. Is that injury covered for workers’ compensation? The answer is clearly yes because the secretary was injured performing an assignment away from the employer’s premises and the accident happened in the course of performing this assigned task.
- Suppose the planning board director leaves the municipal building to attend a county planning board meeting and on the way to the county administration building, she passes her local laundry and stops to pick up some clothes that have been dry cleaned. The laundry location is directly on the way to the county building. She falls inside the laundry and fractures her hip. This introduces us to the concept of “deviation from employment.” Courts would consider this to be a deviation from employment and therefore not covered because getting one’s laundry has nothing to do with attending the county meeting. It would not matter that the stop was on the way. Had the planning board director stopped to purchase some note pads to use at the meeting, the result might be different because the purchase of the note pads would be needed for the meeting.
No discussion of the premises rule in the public sector would be complete without discussing the very significant case of Hersh v. County of Morris and public parking lots. This 2014 New Jersey Supreme Court case made it much harder for employees to prevail on workers’ compensation claims for injuries in parking lots not owned by the employer but leased by the employer. Here are the facts: on January 29, 2010, Ms. Hersh parked her car in the Cattano Garage, exited on Cattano Avenue and began walking one-half block to Washington Street. As she crossed Washington Street, she was struck by a motor vehicle that ran a red light. Hersh argued that her injury was covered by her employer, the County of Morris. The County paid for parking in the lot but denied the workers’ compensation claim. The Supreme Court ruled for the County.
The Court first observed that the Cattano Garage was not part of the premises of the County and noted that the County did not control the garage, even though the county paid for and made parking available to its employees. Readers should note the emphasis by the Supreme Court on the concept of ownership and control. The Court adopted a new “business interest test.” It said, “The County derived no direct business interest from paying for employees to park in the Cattano Garage. Most importantly, the accident occurred on a public street not under the control of the County. In walking a few blocks from the Cattano Garage to her workplace, Hersh did not assume any special or additional hazard.”
By: John H. Geaney, Esq.