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One of the most misunderstood rules in workers’ compensation is the so-called “special mission” exception to the premises rule, which is New Jersey’s successor to the better known “going-and-coming rule.” The New Jersey premises rule says that one is at work when he or she arrives at the work premises. The main exception to that rule is the special mission exception. Confusion abounds on this exception because few read the actual letter of the law. Many think that the special mission applies when an employee has to drive somewhere out of the ordinary or work hours that are unusual. That may not be true at all.
Here is what the statute actually says: “…When the employee is required by the employer to beaway from the employer’s place of employment, the employee shall be deemed to be in the course of employment when the employee is engaged in the direct performance of duties assigned or directed by the employer.” This language comes from NJSA 34:15-36.
Consider some common scenarios:
All of these scenarios have one thing in common: they are unusual assignments for the employee either to locations where the employee does not normally work or during hours when the employee does not normally work. But only two of these scenarios would meet the test of a special mission. If you guessed numbers two and five, you are correct.
In number two, the employee is at a location away from the employer’s premise on an approved seminar when the slip and fall occurs. The employee’s presence in the hotel room is expected and necessary to complete the work assignment. In number five, the defense lawyer is required by the employer to drive to a location away from the employer’s place of employment to perform court duties. The accident happens on the way to court.
But examples 1, 3 and 4 would not constitute a special mission. But why not? Number one is easy because the employee is reporting to the employer’s work site in Jersey City. It doesn’t matter that this is not where the employee normally works: The rule says it must be “away from the employer’s place of employment.” This is the company’s headquarters!
The same outcome applies for numbers three and four. Although the employees in numbers three and four may consider their assignments to be out of the ordinary and rather taxing (driving to work late at night or having to work on a Saturday), the test is not whether there is a deviation from the ordinary work schedule. The test is whether the employee is required by the employer to be away from the employer’s place of employment. They were both reporting to their normal work site. So for numbers 1, 3, and 4, the normal premises rule applies.
The second part of the special mission exception is easier to understand. When an accident occurs away from the employer’s place of employment, the employee must be engaged in the direct performance of work duties for the accident to be compensable. So in the first example, if the employee at the seminar in Los Angeles is a baseball fan and decides to travel by herself to Chavez Ravine one night to watch the Dodgers play the Giants and falls in the stadium, that injury would not be covered because the game has nothing to do with the distant work assignment. What would be covered on a distant assignment or at a seminar? Courts have found that injuries getting meals at a hotel or walking to one’s hotel room would certainly be covered. Taking clients out to a different hotel for dinner or to a sporting event while at a seminar would certainly be covered. That makes sense, but not everything one does on an approved trip is covered, just as not everything that one does in the normal work environment is covered. For example, the fitness-obsessed employee who jumps rope during breaks and falls will not win a workers’ compensation case even if the injury occurs on premises.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.