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What happens if an employer terminates the employment of a worker, who then has an accident before leaving the work premises? Is there workers’ compensation coverage? Does it make a difference if the employee quits as opposed to being fired and then has the injury on premises while leaving? Does the moment of job termination immediately sever workers’ compensation protection?
These are questions that were recently put to me by a claim professional. A search of published cases in New Jersey since the 1979 Amendments yields no published case on point. However, the answer is undoubtedly that coverage for workers’ compensation will continue, barring some deviation, until the employee leaves the work premises.
While workers’ compensation laws vary from state to state, there is one authority that courts in every state look to, namely Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law. This treatise written by Professor Arthur Larson suggests that the employee is covered for workers’ compensation purposes for a reasonable period of time while packing his or her belongings and leaving the work premises. A slip and fall while exiting the work premises should therefore be compensable under most circumstances.
Professor Larson comments that injuries post job termination are actually quite common because employees are often extremely upset in the moments after termination, leading them to be inattentive or careless. Many times employers are suspicious about such injuries, and employment counsel often recommend that someone in supervision accompany the injured worker who has been terminated until he or she leaves the premises. This is certainly good advice for a number of reasons.
Professor Larson analogizes injuries post job termination to punching in or out before leaving the premises. Case law in New Jersey provides that punching in and out of work is separate and distinct from shedding the protection of workers’ compensation coverage. Punching in and out is important for purposes of payment. But New Jersey cases make clear that one remains covered for purposes of workers’ compensation while being on the premises, whether the employee has not yet punched in or has already punched out of work. The key is the location of the worker at the time of the accident. Was the employee injured on premises owned or controlled by the employer? If yes, there is coverage, notwithstanding that the employee may not have punched in yet or has already punched out.
Similarly, an employee is covered for workers’ compensation purposes during on-premises lunches, even though having lunch itself is not a job requirement. New Jersey law is unequivocal that injuries in company cafeterias are compensable. The reasoning again is that New Jersey has a strong premises rule. Work premises are equal: sitting in a lunch room is the same as sitting at one’s desk for purposes of workers’ compensation coverage.
Are there exceptions to the rule noted above? Professor Larson makes an interesting observation that an employee who has quit or who has been fired can sometimes lose coverage if he or she lingers for a lengthy period of time on the premises and begins, for example, to play cards with colleagues or drink alcohol. Those activities would be deviations and would take the employee out of workers’ compensation coverage. But if the delay in departure from the work premises is caused by the employee’s need to wait for employer transportation in a company vehicle, coverage would continue while the employee leaves in the company vehicle.
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.