Argued March 18, 2003 -- Decided August 13, 2003
PORITZ, C.J., writing for a majority of the Court.
In this case, the Court determines whether a city worker, whose daily activities required him to visit various sites within the city's boundaries, is eligible for workers' compensation benefits when he was accidentally injured during the workday but while on a personal errand.
Petitioner was employed by the City of Ventnor (City) as a pumping station operator. His job was to monitor the electrical, chlorination and other systems at water wells, towers and sewerage pumping stations owned and operated by his employer. Because those facilities were dispersed throughout the City, petitioner used a City-owned vehicle when traveling to each worksite to perform his duties. Because petitioner was continually in transit, he had no set time for lunch or a coffee break, and therefore, without objection from his direct supervisor, he was permitted to make brief stops at local establishments for food and beverages or to use the restroom. Petitioner also stopped each day to retrieve his personal mail from a local post office located on the route to one of his job sites, a habit that his supervisor knew about and allowed.
On May 5, 1998, the day of his accident, petitioner followed his usual routine. On the way to one of his inspections, petitioner parked his municipal vehicle around the corner from the post office and left it running while he went in to check his personal mail. As he was returning to his vehicle, petitioner slipped and fell on a nearby driveway, suffering a fractured pelvis and severe leg injuries that required hospitalization and the insertion of a pin into his left fibula. While he was in the hospital, petitioner's supervisor mentioned that there should be no problem with workers' compensation. Petitioner thereafter filed a claim with the New Jersey Division of Workers' Compensation (Division) alleging that the injuries he suffered arose out of and in the course of his employment. The City subsequently filed an answer denying those allegations and disputing the compensability of petitioner's injuries. As a consequence, the trial was bifurcated and proceeded solely on the issue of compensability.
At trial, petitioner testified that he visited the post office daily with the knowledge and permission of his supervisor. Petitioner's supervisor confirmed that it was an unwritten policy to allow employees who are coming and going continually to make brief stops at local establishments to attend to personal business. On April 9, 2001, the trial court dismissed petitioner's claim. Despite the judge's determination that petitioner was authorized to make the post office stop and that it was only a minor deviation from his responsibilities, the judge concluded that petitioner's injuries were not compensable because he was engaged in a personal errand and not the direct performance of duties assigned or required by his employer, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-36.
The Appellate Division affirmed. 351 N.J. Super. 44 (2001). The court held that an employee who deviates from
the temporal and spacial limits of his employment tasks for the sole purpose of engaging in a personal errand is not engaged in the direct performance of duties, as required by the statute. Because petitioner sustained injuries while attending to a personal errand neither incidental to his employment nor beneficial to the employer, the court concluded that he was not entitled to compensation.
HELD: Generally there must be a finding that an off-premises employee was performing his or her work responsibilities at the time of the injury for the injury to be compensable under the Workers' Compensation Act. Although minor deviations from the employee's prescribed responsibilities survived the 1979 amendments to the statute, on the undisputed facts in this record, petitioner is not entitled to benefits.
1. The Workers' Compensation Act (Act) requires employers to compensate employees for accidental injuries arising out of and in the course of employment. The Act defines employment, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:15-36, as
commencing when an employee arrives at the place of employment for work and terminating when the employee leaves the place of employment. The definition of employment also states in part that"when the employee is required by the employer to be away from the employer's place of employment, the employee shall be deemed to be in the course of employment when the employee is engaged in the direct performance of duties assigned or directed by the employer; but the employment of... any employee who utilizes an employer authorized vehicle shall commence and terminate with the time spent traveling to and from a job site or the authorized operation of a vehicle on business authorized by the employer." This definition was part of a package of amendments passed by the Legislature in 1979 that were designed to provide genuine reform and meaningful cost containment for employers from unjustified workers' compensation costs that in the late 1970s were among the highest in the nation. In part, the Legislature sought to reduce costs by sharply curtailing compensability for off-premises accidents. (Pp. 6-8).
2. Because the Act did not define employment prior to the 1979 amendments, case law developed a"going and coming" or"premises" rule. Under that rule, an employee who had not yet arrived on the employer's premises, or who had departed at the end of the workday, was not deemed to be in the course of employment. Over time, the courts carved out numerous exceptions to the rule. In part, those exceptions included the"minor deviation rule," which considered personal habits or errands, such as smoking or making a phone call, to be in the course of employment even though, unlike the indispensable human functions of eating and using the lavatory, employees need not engage in such activities to perform their work duties adequately. Subsequent to the 1979 amendments, however, the courts interpreted the statute to bar compensation for injuries sustained in certain activities that prior to the amendments were deemed within the scope of employment. (Pp 8-15).
3. When an employee is assigned to work at locations away from the employer's place of employment, eligibility for workers' compensation benefits generally should be based on a finding that the employee was performing his or her prescribed job duties at the time of the injury. Case law subsequent to the 1979 amendments has recognized the legislative intent to focus on the performance of the work, thereby limiting the reach of the Act. In furtherance of the clear legislative mandate to sharply curtail compensability for off-premises accidents, the Appellate Division has held in other cases that the Act bars recovery where the activities at issue are personal in nature and concern neither duties assigned nor directed, nor business authorized by the employer. (Pp. 15-16).
4. On-premises employees are not within the scope of employment until they arrive at the employer's place of business, and they shed that status when they depart. Because off-premises employees may not report to a single"premises," the Act provides that they are to be compensated only for accidents occurring in the direct performance of their duties. Those are not different standards, but only descriptors of the same standard in different contexts. Employees who are where they are supposed to be, doing what they are supposed to be doing, are within the course of employment whether on- or -off premises, except when they are commuting. (Pp. 16-17).
5. The minor deviation rule was not eliminated by the 1979 amendments. Off-premises employees enjoy the same ability to deal with certain basic needs enjoyed by on-premises employees such as phone calls to babysitters and physicians as well as coffee and lunch breaks. Those minor deviations are different in kind from shopping excursions during the lunch hour or a visit to a travel agent to plan a vacation, even when the agent works in the same building as the employee. Whether the employer allowed the employee to perform a personal errand does not alter the analysis. The question involving an alleged minor deviation is not whether the off-premises employee was satisfying a personal need, the completion of which is neither incidental to his employment nor beneficial to the employer, but rather, whether the employee has embarked on a personal errand that would have been compensable if carried out by an on-premises employee. Here, petitioner's deviation was no different from the office worker who takes an afternoon break and crosses the street to pick up his personal mail at the local post office. Neither deviation would be compensable. (Pp. 17-18).
The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Poritz, C.J.
JUSTICES LONG and ZAZZALI, dissenting, are of the view that petitioner's deviation was so insubstantial that he remained within the course of his employment at the time of the accident, and they would remand the matter to the trial court to determine whether petitioner's injury arose out of his employment--an issue that was not addressed below.
JUSTICES COLEMAN, VERNIERO, and LaVECCHIA join in CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ's opinion. JUSTICES LONG and ZAZZALI filed a separate dissenting opinion. JUSTICE ALBIN did not participate.
On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 351 N.J. Super. 44 (2002).
In this case, the Court must determine whether a city worker, whose daily duties required him to visit various sites within the city's boundaries, is eligible for workers' compensation benefits when he was accidentally injured during the workday but while on a personal errand. We hold that generally there must be a finding that the off-premises employee is performing his or her work responsibilities at the time of the injury in order for the injury to be compensable. We also hold that minor deviations from the employee's prescribed responsibilities survive the 1979 amendments to the workers' compensation statute. On the ...