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Victor Campos worked for the Department of Public Works for the City of Passaic. On December 23, 2013, he was performing maintenance work at City Hall when he began to feel ill. He made the decision to go home early, but first he had to notify his employer that he was finished for the day and complete paperwork for his supervisor to sign. On the way back to the DPW office, a car driven by a co-employee, Miguel Cruz, a police officer in the City, ran a red light and collided with Campos’ car.
Campos sued Cruz for his personal injuries, and he also brought a workers’ compensation claim against the City, which he settled on a Section 20 basis. Counsel for the City and Cruz in the civil action argued that the civil suit was barred because Campos was in the course of his employment when the action took place and he was injured by a fellow employee of the City. The Superior Court dismissed the civil suit as barred under N.J.S.A. 34:15-8. That provision prevents civil suits against fellow employees.
On appeal Campos argued that he was just returning to the DPW office for personal reasons: namely to fill out paperwork so he could go home. He argued that his day was done when he finished working at City Hall. The Appellate Division disagreed and noted that Campos left the City Hall location to submit required paperwork in order to take off a half-day. Only after completing paperwork would he be permitted to go home. The Court concluded that Campos was therefore performing duties “assigned or directed by the employer” at the time of the accident.
That plaintiff was not physically at his workplace when the accident occurred is thus of no moment. Indeed, as a DPW worker, plaintiff could have been working in any part of the City when he was involved in the accident.
The Court held that part of Campos’s job was to complete paperwork to take off the rest of the day. “The City had a policy requiring him to fill out paperwork prior to going home for the day. Plaintiff was complying with that policy as directed by his employer.”
Campos also tried to argue that a Section 20 settlement does not bar his damages claim against his employer and co-employee. The Court gave some interesting analysis on this issue, citing Sperling v. Bd. of Review, 301 N.J. Super. 1, 5 (App. Div. 1997). “Receipt of a lump sum settlement under N.J.S.A. 34:15-20 constitutes an implied acknowledgement that the claimant’s disability was work-related and compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act.” The Court stated:
Having recovered a workers’ compensation award for his injuries, plaintiff now seeks to pursue a negligence claim for damages involving the same accident and resultant injuries. Because plaintiff’s present claims are prohibited by both statute and common law, the trial court did not err in finding that plaintiff’s receipt of workers’ compensation benefits bars any further recovery at law.
The facts are certainly unusual here, but the reasoning of the Court is sound: petitioner was driving from one city location to his office at the DRW office to fill out paperwork before he could leave work. Therefore he was still in the course of his employment. Plaintiff probably thought the settlement on a Section 20 would keep his potential civil suit alive but the Court treated the Section 20 payment as an admission that the car accident was compensable. The more important point was that an employee cannot sue a co-employee when they are both engaged in work activities. This case can be found at Campos v. Cruz and the City of Passaic, A-3825-16T2 (App. Div. July 12, 2018).
Thanks to our friend Ron Siegel, Esq. for bringing this case to our attention.
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.