Injuries Occurring During Mutually Beneficial Task Are Compensable Even on Day Off
Defense Digest, Vol. 23, No. 4, December 2017
By Kiara K. Han, Esq.
Generally, injuries that occur within the scope and course of employment are found compensable under New Jersey’s workers’ compensation statute. However, it becomes less clear when an employee is injured outside of normal work hours. The Appellate Division recently addressed this issue and presented an unexpected decision in its unpublished opinion. In Grawehr v. Twp. of East Hanover, 2017 N.J.Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1634 (N.J.Super. App.Div. June 29, 2017), the Appellate Division affirmed a workers’ compensation award to a petitioner who fell at work on a day he was not scheduled to work.
In December 2011, the petitioner, a township police officer, was injured when he slipped and fell on ice in the municipal parking lot outside police headquarters. A hotly contested issue was whether the injury was compensable because the officer was not scheduled to be at work that day. Because the township denied the injury was work-related, a trial was held on the issue of compensability only.
The police officer testified that, although he was not scheduled to work that day, he went to headquarters to pick up his pay stub and check his folder for new subpoenas that would require him to testify in court. The officer testified that he wanted to check his folder for these subpoenas to avoid any disciplinary problems other officers faced for not appearing in court. A lieutenant also testified that “diligent” officers would regularly go into work on days off to do work, including him.
On the other hand, additional testimony revealed that police officers’ court appearances were generally scheduled for days they were on duty, that there was no requirement they needed to check their files on off days, and that no court dates were scheduled in the two weeks following the accident. Despite this testimony, the Workers’ Compensation Judge found that the police officer’s injury was compensable because his actions were a “benefit to the employer.” The judge entered an award in favor of the officer.
In upholding this award, the Appellate Division found that the judge relied on substantial, credible evidence and added only two additional points. The first was that, under the “premises rule” set forth in N.J.S.A. § 34:15-36, employment begins when the employee arrives and ends when he or she leaves. Thus, injuries sustained in an “accident arising out of and in the course of employment[,]” are compensable, regardless of whether the injuries occur on a scheduled day of employment. N.J.S.A. § 34:15-7.
The second point addressed was the fact that an injury may be found compensable if the employee was performing a mutually beneficial task when he or she was injured, even while off duty, as long as the injury arose “from or [was] contributed to by conditions which bear some essential relationship to the work or its nature.” Stroka v. United Airlines, 835 A.2d 1247, 1250 (N.J.Super. App.Div. 2003). The Appellate Division relied heavily on Salierno v. Micro Stamping Co., 345 A.2d 342, 344-345 (N.J.Super. App.Div. 1975), in which the appellate panel found a heart attack to be compensable when suffered by an employee during contract negotiations on behalf of a union. In doing so, the Appellate Division focused on the fact that the task the petitioner was performing, i.e., checking his folder for new subpoenas, was mutually beneficial to the employer.
While Grawehr does not bode well for employers, there have been other cases more favorable for employers. One such example is Patterson v. Atlantic Club, 2013 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1716 (N.J.Super. App.Div. July 11, 2013), in which the Judge of Compensation dismissed a petition by a personal trainer who was allegedly injured while returning equipment following a cancelled appointment. The trainer did have prior appointments at the gym with clients. She alleged that she had waited around approximately 20 minutes before returning the equipment she was going to use during the appointment. The employer alleged, to the contrary, that the trainer had changed out of her work uniform and was working out on her personal time when she was injured. The judge did not find the trainer to be credible because she had no appointment scheduled when she was injured, was working out herself, and was on the premises for her own purposes unrelated to her employment. Therefore, although the trainer was at her place of work, the judge found that she sustained the injuries outside of her work hours while performing personal tasks with no mutual benefit to the employer.
As these cases illustrate, determining compensability for injuries outside of the normal work hours is fact-sensitive. However, the extent to which the mutual benefit doctrine can be applied appears to be limitless in that anyone who drops by work to perform a function that is remotely “work-related” can argue the existence of a mutual benefit to the employer. Due to the conflicting decisions by appellate panels and the subjective nature of the mutual benefit doctrine, future clarification from a reported decision or the Supreme Court is needed to define the contours of this seemingly boundless doctrine. One thing employers might attempt to stave off these types of claims is to limit overtime or discourage off-hours work for employees with specified work hours. However, if this is not feasible or if employees are encouraged to come in during off hours, employers should be aware of the possibility of these types of workers’ compensation claims.
*Kiara is an associate in our Mount Laurel, New Jersey office. She can be reached at 856.414.6404 or email@example.com.
Defense Digest, Vol. 23, No. 4, December 2017. Defense Digest is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent legal developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. ATTORNEY ADVERTISING pursuant to New York RPC 7.1. © 2017 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm. For reprints, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.