January 06, 2016

NJ Appellate Division Update: Off-Duty Employee’s Trip to Cash Paycheck at Employer’s Premises Not Within Course and Scope of Employment

The Superior Court of New Jersey’s Appellate Division recently revisited the oft-argued and fact-sensitive arena of “course and scope” when it reversed the NJ WC Division’s decision in the matter of Robert Miller v. Saker Shoprite. In sum, the issue before the court was whether the petitioner, a supermarket employee, was acting within the course and scope of his employment when he was injured after slipping on a granular substance on the floor of the checkout area. The petitioner, who was dressed in what was described by the court as his pajamas, had come to the store several hours before his scheduled shift in order to cash his paycheck. He then used some of the cash to buy a lottery ticket from the courtesy desk, handed that ticket to a friend working at a separate register, and was in the process of walking away when he slipped and fell. While he initially declined medical treatment at the time of the fall, it soon became apparent that the petitioner had suffered a left knee meniscus tear, as well as a lumbar sprain and strain.

The petitioner ultimately filed a Claim Petition for workers’ compensation benefits. His employer had denied the compensability of same, arguing that the alleged injury was not compensable because it did not occur within the course of the petitioner’s employment. In the alternative, the petitioner also filed a parallel personal injury action in the Law Division.

After considering the proofs at trial, including the testimony of the petitioner and the co-worker who had witnessed his fall, the presiding WC judge held that the subject injuries had arisen out of and in the course of the petitioner’s employment with the respondent. The judge indicated in his oral opinion that he was persuaded that the petitioner was on the store premises for a reason “connected with” his employment. The judge believed it to be significant that the store had adopted a policy allowing its employees to cash their paychecks at the store. The judge concluded that said policy benefitted the store (as it enabled the employees to engage in “impulse buying”) and as such, the injuries sustained were compensable under the NJ WC Act.

Under the NJ Workers’ Compensation Act, an injury is deemed compensable when it “is caused to an employee by [an] accident arising out of and in the course of his employment.” N.J.S.A. 34:15-1. The “arising out of” element of the Act refers to the “causal origin” of the accident, whereas the “course of employment” element refers to the “time, place, and circumstances of the accident in relation to the employment.” Cannuscio v. Claridge Hotel and Casino, 319 N.J. Super. 342, 349 (App. Div. 1999) (quoting Shaudys v. IMO Indus., 285 N.J. Super. 407, 410 (App Div. 1995)). While the injured employee need not be actually working at the time of the incident or injury, the petitioner’s employment must at least be a contributing cause and the risk of the subject injury be reasonably incident to his or her employment.

On appeal, the NJ Superior Court reversed the trial court’s conclusion of compensability, holding that the petitioner was not, in fact, acting within the scope of his employment when the subject fall occurred. As such, the court directed the dismissal of the petitioner’s workers’ compensation Claim Petition, without prejudice to his right to file a motion to reopen his dormant, provisionally-filed personal injury action in the Superior Court Law Division. The Appellate Court opinion noted that while the petitioner’s fall indisputably occurred on his employer’s premises, it was at a time when he was not on duty performing any services, nor was he dressed for or about to engage in any work activities; he was merely present in the store to accomplish a purely personal task, i.e., to cash his paycheck, and at the moment of his injury he had just completed another personal task, i.e., handing a lottery ticket he had just purchased to a friend. The court noted that the circumstances implicate the published WC cases that have addressed such accidents occurring on an employer’s premises while the worker was engaged in a wholly personal endeavor.

What It Means to You

While it is important to keep in mind that decisions relative to compensability in scenarios similar to this one are very fact sensitive, and can often go either way depending upon how said facts are interpreted and applied against the rules of the case law by the presiding WC judges, an opinion such as this shows the importance of careful pre-litigation consideration relative to acceptance or denial, as same can often be leveraged in favor of attaining prompt full and final closure of a claim under N.J.S.A. 34:15-20, even if the subject denial may not prevail at trial.