How far can the NJ WC Courts stretch the so-called “premises rule” of compensability? Based upon a recent decision of the New Jersey Appellate Division, this rule can be pushed pretty far in favor of an injured claimant. In the recent unpublished NJ Appellate Division opinion of Burdette v. Harrah’s Atlantic City, the court affirmed the Court of Compensation’s holding that a petitioner’s injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident which occurred while the petitioner was leaving work were compensable.
The pertinent facts of Burdette are as follows: On September 19,2012, after finishing hershift as a casinodealer atHarrah’s,the petitioner returned to her vehicle, which was on Harrah’s employee parking lot. The petitioner proceeded to drive her vehiclealongan internal Harrah’s driveway, passed through aHarrah’s security gate, and attempted to exit the driveway by making a legal left turn onto the public highway.
As the petitioner’s vehicle entered the public roadway, a vehicle traveling northwest bound struck the petitioner’s car on the driver’s side, injuring the petitioner. At the pointof impact,the petitioner’s carwas located partiallyon the public highway,but approximately one foot of the rear of the vehicle was partly over Harrah’s driveway’s threshold. Subsequently, the petitioner filed a Claim Petition for NJ workers’ compensation benefits, alleging various injuries to her head, neck, low back, left knee, and bilateral shoulders/arms. Harrah’s denied the claim on grounds that the petitioner’s injuries were not sustained within the course and scope of her employment, following which point the petitioner filed a Motion for Medical and/or TTD Benefits.
Once testimony concluded on the subject motion, the presiding Judge of Compensation held that “the petitioner’s vehicle afterthe collision [exited] the parking lot, but not completely. There is approximatelyone foot in length of petitioner’s carstillin thearea of the parkinglot controlledby Harrah’s.” As such, The WC court held that the petitioner’s injuries occurred on Harrah’s premises and, therefore, the petitioner remained within the course and scope of her employment with Harrah’s.
Respondent Harrah’s appealed the decision, based upon grounds that the petitioner’s injuries fall outside the general “course and scope” and “premises” rules of compensability. In short, counsel for Harrah’s argued that the WC court misapplied the premises rule by focusing upon the location of the petitioner’s vehicle versus her actual location and the location where her injuries took place (which was outside the threshold of Harrah’s parking lot).
The Appellate Division ultimately affirmed the WC trial court’s holding that the petitioner’s injuries were a compensable work-related loss. The court concluded that entitlement to workers’compensation benefits iscontrolled by the premises rule set forth in N.J.S.A.34:15-36, which provides that “[e]mploymentshall be deemedto commencewhen an employee arrivesat theemployer’s place ofemployment to report for work and shall terminate when the employee leaves the employer’splaceof employment, excluding areas not under the controlofthe employer” Applying said “premises rule,” courts have fairly wide latitude to makethis determination ona case-by-case basis. Given that the NJ WCAct is intended to function “‘humanitarian social legislation,’ it is to be liberally construed in favor of coverage, for the protectionof employees.” See Valdezv.Tri-StateFurniture, 374 N.J.Super.223,232 (App.Div. 2005).
In the subject case, given that the petitioner’s car never fully left the employer’s premises (i.e., the employee parking lot), her vehiclewasin the midst ofnavigating a left turn ontoa public thoroughfare, and, as such, the exactspot where the petitionersuffered injuries was held to be neitherremote from, nor unconnected to, herwork premises. The mere fact that approximately one (1) foot of the petitioner’s vehicle remained within the threshold of the parking lot was sufficient for a factual holding that the petitioner did not egress the premises of the employer. In short, the Appellate judges concluded that the WC trial court’s conclusion of compensability was indeed a consistent interpretation of the WC Act and its liberal construction in favor of finding workers’ compensation coverage for injured workers.
What It Means to You
What does this recent unreported decision mean for defense practitioners? In essence, this opinion represents the perfect, albeit extreme, example of just how far the more liberal-leaning WC judges can, and will, go in finding a claimant’s injuries to be compensable. Some, if not most, of NJ’s WC judges will stretch the statute and its interpretative case law to its farthest boundaries to protect the interests of the injured worker, relying upon the social remedial legislative intent of the Act. Knowing these risks and judicial prejudices allow your legal counsel to better tailor and calculate recommendations and action plans in advance of trial in hopes to avoid adverse consequences inured by the employer.