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George Washington, an employee of Runnells Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare, left work on March 5, 2015 and drove his car to pick up lunch at a nearby restaurant. Returning from lunch, his car struck a guardrail on a snow-covered access driveway owned by Runnells. He completed an accident report at the scene, exited his vehicle, then slipped and fell, fracturing his ankle.
In April 2016, Washington sued Runnells, his employer, seeking compensatory damages. Defendant Runnells surprisingly failed to argue that workers’ compensation was plaintiff’s exclusive remedy. One cannot sue one’s employer in civil court except for rare exceptions. Eventually Runnells amended its position in the case to argue that plaintiff could not sue the company in civil court, and the amendment was allowed. That set the stage for an interesting decision. Was Mr. Washington at work when he slipped and fell on an access road coming back from lunch?
The Superior Court held that plaintiff could not bring a civil suit against Runnells. It did not matter that plaintiff was returning from a lunch break. His car had reached the premises owned or controlled by his employer and he was technically in the course of employment when he was injured. Therefore his sole remedy was workers’ compensation benefits, something Washington did not desire.
Washington relied on Acikgoz v. N.J. Tpk. Auth., 398 N.J. Super. 79 (App. Div. 2008). He argued that his case was similar to this 2008 case. In that case two vehicles collided on an access road owned by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, and a civil case was allowed. Both drivers worked for the Turnpike Authority. Acikgoz had completed his shift and was heading home. Lowden, the other driver, was merely driving to work to pick up his paycheck.
The Court in Acikgoz allowed the civil law suit stemming because it held that Lowden was not in the course of his employment, as he was just picking up a paycheck. He was not there to work. Further, the access road was open to the public. The Court found that Lowden used the access road for “convenience” rather than for the benefit of his employer.
The Appellate Division concluded that Washington’s case was not the same as Acikgozat all. The Appellate Court felt that Washington’s civil case was barred because plaintiff was technically at work when he was injured on the employer’s premises. The court noted that the road he was on was not used by the public. The Court also held that the civil case should be dismissed without prejudice pending a decision in the Division of Workers’ Compensation on the issue of compensability. It is noteworthy that the Appellate Division in this case deferred to the Division of Workers’ Compensation for the final say on the application of the premises rule, predicting that the Division of Workers’ Compensation would be in agreement. That has not been the trend in recent cases where the Superior Court has been faced with workers’ compensation compensability decisions, making their own final determination.
This case can be found at Washington v. Runnells Operating, LLC, A-3996-16T2 (App. Div. July 25, 2018). It illustrates an important point in workers’ compensation. The premises rule is a strict rule. When one is on the premises to work, workers’ compensation laws apply. It does not matter that one may be returning from lunch or returning from an off-premises shopping errand: the mere presence on the premises to renew work is enough to bring the worker within the protection of workers’ compensation. In this case Washington fought hard to be outside workers’ compensation because the potential for damages is often far greater in the civil courts than in workers’ compensation.
Thanks to our friend, Ron Siegel, Esq. for bringing this interesting 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.