By Kevin L. Connors, Esquire
Two recent Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Decisions review the importance of factual nuances in determining whether Employees driving to work are within the course and scope of employment when injured in automobile accidents.
The Decisions are Dane Holler v. WCAB (Tri Wire Engineering Solutions, Inc.) and Joseph Simko v. WCAB (United States Steel Corporation-Edgar Thomson Works).
Both Decisions were issued by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court on October 17, 2014.
In Holler, the Workers’ Compensation Judge denied the Claimant’s Claim Petition for compensation benefits, with the denial of benefits being affirmed by the Pennsylvania Appeal Board, and then reversed by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
In Simko, the Workers’ Compensation Judge granted the Employee’s claim, which was then reversed by the Appeal Board denying benefits to the Employee, with the denial of benefits being affirmed by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
Holler was injured in an automobile accident, as he was driving to work.
He worked as a Cable Technician, and was responsible for installing to Tri Wire’s customers.
His routine would be that he would drive to the Home Office, where he would check-in, receive his assignments, pick up his equipment, and then begin working at various customer locations.
Tri Wire allowed the Claimant to take his company vehicle home each night, and to then use it to report to work.
Tri Wire specifically prohibited the Claimant from using the company vehicle for any other purpose, or from allowing anyone else to drive it.
Tri Wire also would not allow the Claimant to have any passengers in its vehicle.
Driving to work on August 13, 2010, the Claimant was driving the company vehicle, and he was injured in a single-vehicle accident. He was injured when his vehicle ran off the road, struck a telephone pole, with the Claimant sustaining significant injuries, requiring that he be life-flighted to the hospital.
He did not return to work after that accident.
Seeking workers’ compensation benefits, the Claimant testified before the Workers’ Compensation Judge, admitting that there was no contract with Tri Wire for transportation.
The Workers’ Compensation Judge determined that the Claimant had a fixed place of work, that there were no facts in the case indicating that the Claimant was on a special assignment when injured, and that there were no special circumstances from which it could be determined that the Claimant was furthering the business interests of Tri Wire.
In reliance upon those findings, the Workers’ Compensation Judge concluded that the Claimant was not acting in the course and scope of employment, when the motor vehicle accident occurred, resulting in his injuries.
The Claimant appealed the Judge’s Decision to the Pennsylvania Appeal Board.
In reliance upon long-standing Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Decisions, involving the “coming and going rule”, injuries occurring going to or coming from work can be considered to have occurred within the course and scope of employment if one of the following four exceptions applies:
• The Claimant’s employment contract includes transportation to and from work;
• The Claimant has no fixed place of work;
• The Claimant is on a special mission for the Employer, such that the Claimant is furthering the business interests of the Employer; or,
• Special circumstances are such that the Claimant was furthering the business of the Employer.
In Holler, the Claimant asserted that the second exception, that he had no fixed place of work, with the Commonwealth Court citing several Decisions that involved the no fixed place of work scenario, including Beaver & Casey, Inc. v. WCAB, 661 A.2d 40 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1995); Jamison v. WCAB (Gallagher Home Health), 955 A.2d 494 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008); Toal Assocs. v. WCAB (Sternick), 814 A.2d (Pa. Cmwlth. 2003); Peterson v. WCAB (PRN Nursing Agency), 597 A.2d 1116 (Pa. 1991).
Citing to an unreported Opinion in Comcast v. WCAB (Clark), (Pa. Cmwlth., 1645 C.D. 2011), the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held that the Holler case was factually indistinguishable from Clark, since the Claimants in both cases, would only report to their Home Offices for a few minutes, before then spending their entire day travelling to various customer sites, to install services, or make repairs.
Adopting its reasoning in Clark, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held in Holler that the Claimant was a travelling Employee with no fixed place of work, and was then exempt from the coming and going exclusion, with the Claimant then being entitled to the presumption that he was working for Tri Wire, when driving from his house to the Home Office.
The Holler Court further held that Tri Wire did not present any evidence to suggest that the Claimant’s drive to work the morning of his injury either removed him from his employment, or constituted an abandonment of his employment, with the Commonwealth Court remanding the case back to the Workers’ Compensation Judge, to enter findings in favor of the Claimant and against Tri Wire.
In Simko, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court held that the Claimant was not in the course and scope of employment, when he was driving to work for a stand-down meeting, which were infrequently scheduled by United States Steel, and were differentiated from monthly safety meetings, which always dealt with particular topics, and were held at the same time each month for each department, at which, attendance was mandatory for all Employees.
With the Workers’ Compensation Judge having found that the Claimant was in the course and scope of employment when he was injured, finding that the Claimant was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, as the evidence that he presented established that he was on a “special mission” exception to the coming and going rule, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the Pennsylvania Appeal Board’s determination that the Workers’ Compensation Judge had erred in concluding that the Claimant was in the course and scope of employment when injured, as it held that where Employees are required to attend to their regular work duties, attendance at this meeting was not a special mission.
For that reason, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court did not find that the Claimant was in the course and scope of employment when injured, as attendance at the meeting was mandatory, travelling to the meeting was not a special mission, and the Claimant’s drive to work could only be construed as normal commuting to work.
The Holler and Simko cases are easily distinguishable, as in Holler, the Claimant’s routine would be a very brief check-in at the office, to receive assignments and pick up equipment, after which the Claimant’s workday would be travelling to various customer locations, such that the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court determined that the Claimant did not have a fixed place of work, resulting in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court concluding that the Claimant’s workers’ compensation claim was not precluded by the “coming and going” rule that is applied to Pennsylvania workers’ compensation claims where Employees are injured either driving to or from work.
Simko, however, is distinguishable from Holler, as Simko was injured as he was driving to work for a mandatory meeting, such that his commute to work that day did not fit any of the four exceptions to the “coming and going” rule, excluding workers’ compensation benefits being awarded to Employees who are injured driving to or from work.
Both Holler and Simko illustrate that each Decision hinges upon not only the evidence presented, but also how that evidence is characterized, in order to either fit within one of the four exceptions to the “coming and going” rule, such that injuries become compensable when driving to or from work, or, the factual evidence presented does not fit any of the four exceptions, such that workers’ compensation benefits cannot be awarded, as the injuries occur during a normal commute to or from work.
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