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Coleman v. Cycle Transformer Corp.

Decided: November 14, 1986.

JUDY COLEMAN, PETITIONER-RESPONDENT,
v.
CYCLE TRANSFORMER CORP., RESPONDENT-APPELLANT



On certification to the Superior Appellate Division.

For reversal -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- none. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Clifford, J.

Clifford

In this workers' compensation case the judge of compensation dismissed the claim petition because "the accident did not arise out of the employment * * *." The Appellate Division, in an unreported opinion, reversed and remanded on the strength of Chen v. Federated Dep't Stores, 199 N.J. Super. 336 (App.Div.1985). We granted certification, 102 N.J. 399 (1986), to review that determination. We reverse.

I

On December 21, 1983, petitioner, Judy Coleman, was employed as an inspector-tester by respondent, Cycle Transformer Corporation (Cycle). As was her custom she had lunch, which she had brought with her from home, in the lunchroom set aside by her employer on its premises for that purpose. The dining area was not an elaborate facility: it contained only tables, chairs, a coffee and soda machine, and a refrigerator.

The employer neither served nor provided any food. Petitioner, who was free to dine on or off the premises, was not paid for her half-hour lunch break. It was after she had finished her lunch that petitioner experienced a bizarre mishap, which she described as follows:

I was done eating. I went to light a cigarette. I struck the match and as I went to turn my head to the right to talk to one of my co-workers, you know, the tip of my hair caught the match and my hair went up in flames.

[A] couple of the co-workers there beat out the fire, put the fire out. Once the fire was out I -- I had this chemical on my hair. I had a new growth of hair underneath, so the hair burned down so much and then burned out, the fire went out with them beating it.

The chemical to which petitioner referred was actually two products -- one, called S Curl Activator, is "something like a perm" and had been applied by a beauty parlor some five months previously; the other, Stay Soft Flow Activator, had been put on by petitioner that morning, to "keep the curl in [her] hair in place." Although we gather that petitioner has brought suit against the manufacturers of those products, their role, if any, in causing the accident or injury is not evidenced by this record. We therefore attach no significance on this appeal to the presence of those preparations.

Petitioner's workers' compensation claim sought benefits for facial and head burns, scarring, and neuropsychiatric and dermatological disabilities. Judge McNatt concluded that the accidental touching of a lighted match to the petitioner's hair by the petitioner's own hand was not "reasonably incidental" to her employment. He concluded: "Neither the tasks of her employment, nor the place where she was eating her lunch at the time, nor any act on the part of any of her co-employees caused her injury," and therefore "the accident did not arise out of" the employment.

On appeal, the Appellate Division read Chen v. Federated Dep't Stores, supra, 199 N.J. Super. 336, to hold "unequivocally" that "injuries occurring on the employer's premises during

a regular lunch hour arise in the course of employment and are solely remediable under the Workers' Compensation Act." Because the court below viewed the facts in this case as "legally indistinguishable" from those in Chen, in which plaintiff was injured while shopping on her employer's premises during a lunch break, it concluded that Chen was "dispositive" and held that "Coleman's injuries in this case arose out of and in the course of employment." The Appellate Division therefore reversed and remanded to the Division of Workers' Compensation for a determination of the nature and extent of disability.

II

Dean Larson reminds us that "[t]he heart of every compensation act, and the source of most litigation in the compensation field, is the coverage formula." 1 A. Larson, Workmen's Compensation Law, § 6.10 (1985) (hereinafter Larson). New Jersey, like most other states, adopted its formula from the British Compensation Act, with its requirement of "accident arising out of and in the course of employment." Larson, supra, at § 6.10. Our Workers' Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -127, provides in pertinent part:

When employer and employee shall by agreement, either express or implied, * * * accept the provisions of this article compensation for personal injuries to * * * such employee by accident arising out of and in the course of employment shall be made by the ...


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