Court Strictly Construes Course of Employment
Trigon Holdings, Inc. v. WCAB (Griffith),
(Pa. Commonwealth Court 6/28/2013)
This is an interesting case about course of employment. The lesson here is that the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court seems to be sending a signal that deviations from employment, even of a short duration, will not necessarily be found compensable. Consequently, strong consideration should be given to contesting any claim involving any level of abandonment of specific employment duties.
The Claimant here, Kenneth Griffith, had been employed for several years as a “gang leader”. The Employer is a machine shop engaged in precision finishing of metal parts. Claimant’s specific job was to ensure that Trigon’s machines were operating properly during his work shift. It was specifically indicated in the record developed before the Workers’ Compensation Judge that the Claimant was not a machine operator. In May of 2008, two hours into his night shift, and after ensuring that all of the machines in the plant were evidently running smoothly; he told other employees in the shop that he would be in the tool and die room “for a couple of minutes” if he was needed. This portion of the employer’s facility was about 20 yards or so from the machine shop where Claimant worked. It turned out that Claimant had decided to polish a bolt for his child’s go-cart. It seems clear why Claimant was not considered to be a machine operator, because in the course of this activity, his left thumb was drawn into a lathe, resulting in a severe degloving injury. This resulted in his absence from employment for a period of about 6 months.
The Employer was displeased, suspending Claimant for 5 days for performing personal work on company time while using company equipment.
During the course of his absence, Claimant filed a Claim Petition for his injuries. The WC Judge granted Claimant disability benefits for the period of his time out of work, threw in attorneys’ fees for unreasonable contest, and also ordered the employer to reimburse Claimant’s private medical insurer for the medical bills it paid.
Employer appealed to the Board which affirmed, so Employer went to the Commonwealth Court.
The key issue was whether Claimant was in the course of his employment when this injury occurred.
The Claimant had put on a strong case. He testified himself that sometimes he was allowed to use the machines in the tool and die room to retouch parts that had been improperly machined. He also testified that, prior to the occurrence of this accident, that his foreman stated he could go to the tool and die department “at any time” to do personal work. Claimant also presented the testimony of some co-workers to the effect that Trigon permitted them to its use tool and die equipment for personal projects.
Employer countered with testimony from a senior management official that he had never heard or seen anyone perform personal work while on the clock, and that the only employees who had ever done personal work had left the company’s employ many years prior.
The WC Judge found Claimant’s testimony and that of his witnesses more credible than the Employer’s testimony, and so found that what Claimant did was simply a “small temporary departure from work [which did] not break the course of employment”.
The Commonwealth Court reviewed that “course and scope of employment” is a legal determination, but acknowledged that the extent to which the departure from specified work duties is material or immaterial had not been specifically fixed by the prior case law.
In this regard, the Court reviewed some of the cases showing the range of deviations from employment found to be inconsequential versus consequential. We all may remember the case of a furniture delivery man who, after completing a residential delivery jumped to touch a basketball rim in the driveway, fell backwards and sustained a traumatic brain injury. This was found to be compensable. Likewise, in the case where an employee kissed a coworker leaving for maternity, which resulted in the employee contracting a rare disease, leading to his death. This was found to be compensable. The Court contrasted the case of an employee who crossed the street from his work station to a parking area nonetheless deemed to be a part of the employer’s premises to retrieve some auto parts he had ordered from one of the employer’s distributors, and was then struck by a car. This was found to be not compensable.
Returning to this Trigon case, the Court stated that: “We are hard-pressed to make the legal conclusion that [Mr. Griffith’s] departure was … small and not pronounced”. Under the facts as found by the WC Judge in this case, this Claimant’s “departure from the course of his employment was strongly marked and not trivial”. The Court went on to indicate that the Claimant was not injured in connection with attending to personal comfort (such as using the bathroom). Instead, Claimant here “actively disengaged himself from his work responsibilities”. The Court found it meaningful that Claimant felt obliged to inform his coworkers that he was leaving his regular work area, so that they could seek him out if any problems arose at his work area. The Court finds that this illustrates “the pronounced and significant nature of Claimant’s diversion [from his work activities]”.
The Court concluded by finding that Claimant had “abandoned his work responsibilities and was deliberately engaged in an activity wholly foreign thereto, i.e., polishing a bolt for his child’s go-cart”. In support of this finding, the Court reached back to an old Pennsylvania Supreme Court case which held that the WC Act was “never intended to make the employer an insurer of the safety of all employees”.
Again, I think it is clear from this holding that the Commonwealth Court is going to take a harder look at this type of claim. We should be guided in the handling of our claims accordingly.
Mark L. Mazzanti, Esquire