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Written By: Kyla Block
When Plaintiffs are injured at work under circumstances which raise the question of whether the precipitating activity was “in furtherance of” versus “incidental to” the job duties assigned and the employer’s interest, the North Carolina Courts will look closely at the nature of the activity and the behavior immediately prior to the incident to determine whether the injury arose out of and in the course of employment. If the underlying facts prevent a clear determination and application of the relevant law, the Court of Appeals will remand for further clarification. In a recent decision,Weaver v. Dedmon, the Court of Appeals did just that, ultimately remanding the case to the Full Commission for clarity on whether Plaintiff was in the actual performance of a direct job duty or whether he was performing an incidental activity, and whether this incidental activity constituted a reasonable action.
In Weaver, Plaintiff was employed as a fence builder and was required to regularly operate a forklift and move fencing supplies around the outdoor storage yard. Plaintiff testified that on the date of injury, he had just finished unloading supplies with the forklift and was about to return the forklift to the warehouse when he turned the forklift too quickly and it overturned. However, a witness approximately 350 feet from Plaintiff testified he heard the loud noise of equipment “running at a high throttle” and saw Plaintiff doing “donuts” with the forklift just prior to the accident. The witness saw no work materials and “there was no indication that there was any work being done.” Plaintiff sustained a crush injury, closed head injury, multiple fractures, liver and renal lacerations, splenic injury and cardiac arrest. The Defendants denied the claim and asserted that Plaintiff had not sustained an injury by accident or specific traumatic event arising out of and during the course and scope of his employment.
Following a hearing, the deputy commissioner entered an Opinion and Award denying Plaintiff’s claim in its entirety and the Plaintiff appealed to the Full Commission.
The Full Commission affirmed the deputy commissioner’s Opinion and Award, finding the witness’ testimony credible because the witness was an unbiased, disinterested eyewitness of the events immediately preceding the accident. The Commission also found credible testimony by an accident reconstruction expert that photos of the tire impressions at the scene of the accident were consistent with the forklift having been driven in tight circles. The Commission concluded that Plaintiff was “operating the forklift at such a speed to cause it to rollover,” he was “joyriding” or “thrill seeking” when the accident occurred, and this activity bore no relationship to accomplishment of the duty for which Plaintiff was hired. The Commission further concluded that “to the extent Plaintiff may have initially performed some work-related tasks with the forklift, his decision to do donuts . . . was too remote from customary usage and reasonable practice and constituted an extraordinary deviation from his employment.”
Plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeals.
In remanding the matter back to the Full Commission for reconsideration of whether Plaintiff’s injuries arose out of and in the course of his employment, the Court of Appeals determined the Commission’s conclusions regarding the lack of relationship between Plaintiff’s activity on the forklift to the accomplishment of his employment duties and the proposition that Plaintiff may have initially been performing some work-related tasks with the forklift were findings of fact, not conclusions of law, as these determinations were reached through logical reasoning from the evidentiary facts. The Court further concluded that the factual findings – one stating Plaintiff’s action of performing “donuts” bore no relation to his job duties and the other stating that Plaintiff may have initially performed some work-related tasks with the forklift – were inconsistent with each other and precluded the Court from determining whether the Commission’s findings supported the legal conclusion that Plaintiff’s operation of the forklift removed him from the scope of employment. Specifically, the Court found the Commission’s finding that Plaintiff “may have initially performed some work-related tasks with the forklift” undermined the Commission’s conclusion that the injury did not arise out of and in the course of employment. On remand for redetermination by the Commission, the Court directed the Commission to reexamine whether it found Plaintiff’s testimony that he was returning the forklift to the warehouse after using it for work purposes credible and what impact that finding would have the conclusion that “Plaintiff operated the forklift preceding his injury [in a manner that] was unreasonable and reckless, in essence joy riding and/or thrill seeking.” The Court specifically sought clarity on whether Plaintiff was operating the forklift in furtherance of – or incidental to – his job duties and his employer’s interest, as that would determine whether the work-related activity would be characterized as “actual performance of the direct duties of the job activities” or as “incidental activities” and would direct the Court to follow evolved precedent for each characterization.
Judge Tyson dissented and argued that since the Commission found that Plaintiff “may” have been initially engaged in a work-related task at the time of the accident, the majority’s opinion asserting that the Commission’s findings failed to support the conclusion that Plaintiff’s injuries did not arise out of and in the course of his employment “unduly parses the Commission’s findings and conclusions” and fails to apply the plain and ordinary meanings of the Commission’s words. He further argued whether Plaintiff initially performed work-related activities was inconsequential because the employee carried the burden of proving a causal connection between the employment and the injury and in this case, the Commission found that Plaintiff’s joyriding or thrill seeking ultimately broke the causal connection between Plaintiff’s employment and his injuries. Thus, the Commission’s Opinion and Award denying Plaintiff compensation was consistent with precedent, supported by competent evidence, and should have been affirmed.
Given this attention to detail at the Court of Appeals, all parties defending these types of claims need to clearly delineate arguments at the Commission level which demonstrate a succinct break between the actual performance of the direct duties of the job activities and incidental activities which can be shown to be unreasonable.