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A key doctrine in the law known as “respondeat superior” provides that an employer is responsible for the acts of its employees performed within the course of their employment. Whether that doctrine applied to an employee who had a motor vehicle accident after being summoned to a training meeting was the issue in Samol v. Vanlaningham, No. A-5058-18T2 (App. Div. June 3, 2020).
The facts involved a high school student, Ryan Vanlaningham, who was called by his store manager to attend a training meeting at Party City where he worked in March 2016. Vanlaningham was informed that he would be compensated at his usual hourly rate for the training meeting, and he would work his regular shift the same day. He was not compensated for the time driving to the training meeting at his work location. While driving to the training meeting, Vanlaningham’s vehicle struck a vehicle owned by Pablo Samol. A passenger in Samol’s car, Beatrice Samol, was injured and filed a lawsuit naming Vanlaningham and his employer, Party City, as defendants.
Party City opposed the law suit and moved to dismiss it. The company argued that Vanlaningham was not in the course of his employment when he was driving to work for the training meeting under the going-and-coming rule. Samol countered that this was not a normal commute to work because Vanlaningham was either compelled to go to work or was on a special mission, two exceptions to the premises rule, which replaced the going-and-coming rule in New Jersey in 1979.
The trial judge ruled that Vanlaningham had not arrived at work when the accident occurred, and therefore Party City was not liable for his actions. The judge concluded that the training meeting was a normal and routine part of the young man’s employment. The Appellate Division agreed with the trial judge but considered the argument of Ms. Samol that Vanlaningham was “compelled” to undertake the actions of driving to the training meeting. The Court reviewed the two leading cases on compulsion in workers’ compensation, namely Sager v. O. A. Peterson Constr. Co. and Lozano v. Frank De Luca Constr. Those cases stand for the proposition that an otherwise non-compensable activity can become compensable if the employer compels an employee to perform the activity.
The Court seemed to blend the special mission and compulsion arguments together: “Here, there was no credible basis to support the assertion defendant controlled Vanlaningham’s commute or that his commute fell within the scope of his job duties. The facts did not demonstrate Vanlaningham’s commute was pursuant to a special mission; he was traveling to his regular place of employment on one of his pre-scheduled workdays. For these reasons as well, his drive to work on the day of the incident was not a compelled activity.”
The decision of the court is clearly correct and the reasoning is a sound. But the court slightly missed the mark on the special mission argument. The statute states that a special mission only applies when the employee is required to be away from the employer’s place of employment. N.J.S.A. 34:15-36. Here the drive was directly to the normal place of employment. Therefore, it could not be considered a “special mission.”
As for the compulsion argument, all employees are compelled to go to work. Attendance at work is not optional, as we all know. The compulsion line of cases is a valid one in New Jersey. However, it only applies to activities that are not normally required of employees. Since all employees are compelled to report to work, the compulsion argument really made no sense. If the court were to entertain the argument that a drive to the normal work site was compelled, it would completely undercut the goal of the 1979 Amendments, which was to do away with the many exceptions in the law to the going-and-coming rule.
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.