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Klein v. New York Times Co.

December 15, 1998


Before Judges Keefe, Eichen, and Coburn.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: The opinion of the court was delivered by Coburn, J.A.D.

[9]    Argued December 1, 1998

On appeal from Division of Workers' Compensation, Department of Labor.

In this workers' compensation case, the employee, Robert Klein, enraged by his supervisor's criticism, smashed his fist against an electrical box, breaking bones in his hand. The Judge of compensation held that the employee's self-inflicted injury was compensable because he acted impulsively while at work and did not intend to harm himself. Although we have no quarrel with the Judge's factual determinations, we nonetheless reverse because he failed to apply the correct principles of law.

Under the Workers' Compensation Act an award requires proof of an "accident" and proof that the accident arose "out of" as well as "in the course of" employment. An accident does not include an intentional act of violence to oneself that causes a reasonably expected injury. Although Klein was injured in the course of his employment, his reasonably anticipated and violently self-inflicted injury was not the result of an accident. Furthermore, the injury did not arise "out of" the employment because it resulted from Klein's personal proclivities and his unreasonable reaction to a supervisor's commonplace personnel action.

On the evening of November 16, 1994, Klein was at a plant owned by his employer, The New York Times Company, preparing a collating machine for operation, when he was called to the office by his supervisor who criticized his job performance. He was told that he was not setting up the machine properly and that if he did not "bring his performance up to standard level . . . he was going to be removed from the position." Klein, who had previously demonstrated his proclivity for reacting emotionally to criticism of his job performance, became agitated, screamed, and ran from the room. After complaining briefly to a union representative, he walked toward the locker rooms, felt overwhelmed by anger, and intentionally punched an electrical box, breaking its Plexiglas cover and the fourth and fifth metacarpal bones of his right hand.

There can be no recovery under the Workers' Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -142, without proof of an accident. N.J.S.A. 34:15-1; N.J.S.A. 34:15-7. Although the concept of "accident" is not defined by the Act, its meaning in this context has been settled in general terms by our courts. "`[A]ccident' in the legislative sense is an `unlooked for mishap or an untoward event which is not expected or designed . . . .'" Ciuba v. Irvington Varnish & Insulator Co., 27 N.J. 127, 134 (1958). The concept was framed somewhat differently in George v. Great Eastern Food Products, Inc., 44 N.J. 44 (1965), where the Court said that an occurrence is an accident under the Act "if either the circumstance causing the injury or the result on the employee's person was unlooked for, regardless of whether the inception or the underlying reason for the circumstance or result was personal or work connected." Id. at 47.

Here, the circumstance causing the injury, Klein's impulsive but violent and intentional punch of the electrical box, cannot be described as an unlooked for or unexpected occurrence since it resulted from his willful action. And, although Klein may not have intended to harm himself, as found by the Judge of compensation, the resulting injury cannot be fairly described as "unlooked for." In that regard, we note that the George Court used the phrase "unlooked for" as meaning "unexpected" and not as referring to the employee's lack of specific intent to cause self-injury. Thus, in reaching a Conclusion favorable to the employee who had injured his head in a fall, caused by dizziness resulting from his cardiovascular illness, the Court said, "Here . . . `both the circumstance causing the injury (the striking of the floor) and the consequence upon the employee's person were unexpected.'" Id. at 48 (emphasis added). It is self-evident that a person who forcefully strikes a hard object with the knuckles of his fist should expect resulting injury to his hand.

No court of this State has permitted a workers' compensation recovery in comparable circumstances. Perhaps, the closest case is Secor v. Penn Service Garage, 19 N.J. 315 (1955) (4-3 decision), in which a garage attendant, whose pants had just been splashed with gasoline while filling a customer's gas tank, and whose supervisor had suggested that he immediately change his pants, lit a match and instantaneously was in flames. The trier of fact found that Secor did not intend to ignite his clothing, but he did not determine whether Secor was about to light a cigarette, or was intending to prove the absence of a need for changing clothes, or "whether his act was an impulsive one designed to impress his employer with his lack of personal fear . . . ." Id. at 317. After resolving that under the first two scenarios Secor was clearly entitled to compensation, id. at 323, the Court addressed the third scenario, finding it analogous to the "curiosity cases," decisions allowing recovery to employees injured during intentional but slight and casual departures from duty occasioned by ordinary curiosity.

"More troublesome is the question presented by the assumption that Secor was not motivated by either of the aforestated purposes but simply lit the match in a spirit of "mock bravado." But even here, the compelling principles underlying the modern authorities, particularly the so-called "curiosity cases," lend adequate support for the compensation award to the employee." [Id. at 324 (citation omitted).]

The "curiosity cases" do not provide adequate support to compensate Klein for his conduct. None involve, as does this case, an intentionally violent act that is a clear and substantial departure from the employee's assigned duties and causes an injury that should have been anticipated. Id. at 321-322.

The Secor Court emphasized, as a further reason supporting compensation, what it viewed as the minimal, momentary, and impulsive nature of the employee's deviation:

"The evidence established that, in any event, Secor's deviation from the course of his ordinary work was not an intentional abandonment of his employment but simply a "momentary or impulsive act"--it was not a "deliberate and conscious excursion" . . . . An employee is not an automaton, and, even when he is highly efficient, he will to some extent deviate from the uninterrupted performance of his work. Such deviation, if it be considered minor in the light of the particular time, place and circumstance, is realistically viewed by both the employer and the employee as a normal incidence of the employment relation and ought not in this day be viewed as legally breaching the course thereof." [19 N.J. at 324 (citation omitted).]

The Secor Court acknowledged that allowing compensation was "troublesome" if one assumed the employee was motivated by "mock bravado." The instant case goes well beyond bravado and an allowance of compensation would be more than troublesome. Although we accept the finding of the Judge of compensation that the act was in some sense impulsive, we are nonetheless satisfied that it was also ...

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