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Cases involving parking lot injuries continue to generate divergent results in the Division of Workers’ Compensation and the Appellate Division. Walker v. Saker Shop-Rite, No. A-2770-19 (App. Div. Sept. 7, 2021) illustrates this point yet again.
Ms. Walker, a 70-year-old employee, fell on December 11, 2018 while walking to her car in the leased supermarket parking lot after completing her shift. Her injury was caused by stepping into a pothole. A key fact was that petitioner admitted she parked in the side parking lot area rather than in the area designated for store employees out by the street. She never felt it was safe to park by the street, so she chose to disregard the store’s instructions and park near an area where employees would smoke and drink coffee. She said there was a “cabana type thing” on the side parking lot where employees gathered for a smoke or a cup of coffee. That is where she chose to park for 25 years. She said she mentioned her decision once to an assistant manager of the liquor department years ago. Petitioner said other employees also disregarded the directive to park near the street.
Saker Shop-Rite had a fairly common shopping center lease in that the store agreed to pay a common area maintenance fee to the landlord based on its pro-rata share of the entire shopping center for maintenance, insurance, snow removal and other items. There were eight or ten other stores in the shopping center.
In 2018 Saker Shop-Rite agreed with the landlord to an amendment of the lease which would allow Saker to repave the parking lot and perform other traffic improvements. Counsel for Saker Shop-Rite testified that this was done because the landlord did not want to make application to the Planning Board in Neptune. Saker Shop-Rite agreed to apply to the Planning Board, make the repairs and then submit the cost of repais to the landlord for reimbursement. Well after petitioner’s fall, the store got approval from the Planning Board and made the repairs. This was a one-time event.
There was also testimony from the HR Manager about the designated parking area. She said that new employees were advised to park in the designated area near the street. The HR Manager also would tell employees that were observed parking in non-designated areas to park near the street in the designated area. There was additional testimony that certain store employees were responsible for gathering shopping carts scattered in the parking lot.
Following the trial, the Judge of Compensation ruled that petitioner’s fall was not compensable because it occurred in an area not under the control of Saker Shop-Rite. This decision was consistent with the New Jersey premises rule. The Judge noted that petitioner “consciously chose to ignore Saker’s directive to park in the designated area.” Petitioner appealed.
The Appellate Division reversed in favor of petitioner, relying on a number of factors, many of which are common to all parking lot leases:
This decision is unreported and therefore not binding on other courts. Nonetheless, it adds to a puzzling array of contradictory decisions on parking lot injuries where the employer does not own the lot. The problem with this decision is simply that it makes no sense to base “control” on the designated parking area near the street in this case. This petitioner admitted she never parked there for 25 years. The petitioner inLivingstone was walking from the designated area when struck by a car. Ms. Walker was walking to an area where customers and some other employees parked in an undesignated area.
It seems that the Appellate Division decision is a far stretch. “Employer control” was imputed to Saker Shop-Rite merely becausesome employees used the designated parking area – but none of them was filing a workers’ compensation claim for injuries. As to this petitioner, the Judge of Compensation’s reasoning was on point. Ms. Walker was just walking to her car in an area used by customers and employees, like any other parking lot where an employer leases space for its employees and customers. There was no added hazard as to her because she avoided the much longer walk by choosing to park close to the store. As to the designated parking lot, the evidence seemed more like a request than a requirement since many employees apparently ignored the company policy with impunity.
Boilerplate lease issues, like common area maintenance charges, are a part of virtually every lease and clearly irrelevant to employer control. Only one fact in this case was problematic for the employer. The lease agreement originally entered into in 1992 was amended in 2018 to permit Saker Shop-Rite to repave the front lot. But that was done for the convenience of the landlord in avoiding the planning board application process. It was a one-time repaving issue. In the end, the landlord had to pay for the repairs anyway – and the repairs took place months after the accident.
John H. Geaney, Esq., is a Shareholder and Co-Chair 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 email@example.com.