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Acikgoz v. New Jersey Turnpike Authority

January 23, 2008


On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Labor, Division of Worker's Compensation, No. 2003-13829.

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



Argued November 15, 2007

Before Judges Axelrad*fn1 , Sapp-Peterson and Messano.

On May 4, 2001, petitioner Yakup Acikgoz was involved in a motor vehicle accident with John G. Lowden, Jr. Both men were employed by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority (the Authority) and Lowden also served as first vice-president of the New Jersey Turnpike Employees Union Local 194 (the Union). On the date of the accident, Lowden was on "union release time," had spent a majority of the day in the Union's East Brunswick office, and was proceeding to the Authority's southern division maintenance yard in Moorestown. Petitioner meanwhile had completed working the day shift at that facility and was going home in his car. At approximately 4:30 p.m., or shortly thereafter, the parties' vehicles collided on a bridge on an access road near the maintenance facility.

On November 7, 2002, petitioner filed a Law Division complaint against Lowden asserting general claims of negligence in the operation of his vehicle and seeking damages. Lowden answered the complaint and asserted the provisions of N.J.S.A. 34:15-8 as an affirmative defense to the tort action, claiming both he and petitioner were in the course of their employment at the time of the accident.

On April 27, 2003, petitioner also filed a claim petition against the Authority in the Division of Workers' Compensation (the Division). Subsequently, Lowden successfully moved to intervene in that action. The Authority intervened in the Law Division suit and subsequently successfully moved to stay that litigation and transfer the matter to the Division. The Law Division judge's order of August 9, 2005, provided for the transfer of "jurisdiction to [the Division]," "to determine the application of N.J.S.A. 34:15-8," to determine "whether [petitioner's] motor vehicle accident . . . was compensable under the Workers' Compensation Act," and to determine "whether . . . Lowden was a co-employee under the Workers' Compensation Act."

On January 31, 2006, and April 3, 2006, the compensation judge conducted a trial limited to the issues of compensability under N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 and the applicability of N.J.S.A. 34:15-8. In a written opinion dated October 26, 2006, he determined that neither petitioner nor Lowden were in the course of their employment at the time of the accident, that therefore N.J.S.A. 34:15-8 did not apply, and that petitioner's accident was not compensable. In an order dated November 17, 2006, the judge dismissed the claim petition and relinquished jurisdiction of the tort action to the Law Division. Lowden then filed this appeal.

Lowden argues that the workers' compensation judge erred in determining that petitioner was not in the course of his employment at the time of the accident "because . . . when the accident occurred [petitioner] was still at the [Authority's] place of employment within the meaning of the workmen's (sic) compensation act." Lowden further contends that the compensation judge erred in determining that he was not in the course of his employment when the accident occurred because the "accident occurred at the employer's place of employment," he was there to "pick up his paycheck," or, alternatively, he was "engaged in union business sanctioned by and approved by his employer" at the time. We have considered these arguments in light of the record and applicable legal standards. We affirm.

As a general rule, our review of an administrative agency's fact-finding determinations is limited in scope. Lombardo v. Revlon, Inc., 328 N.J. Super. 484, 488 (App. Div. 2000). We will not disturb those findings if they were reached upon sufficient, credible evidence present in the record. Akef v. BASF Corp., 305 N.J. Super. 333, 340 (App. Div. 1997). This is particularly applicable to appeals involving determinations and orders made by a workers' compensation judge. Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 598-99 (1965); De Angelo v. Alsan Masons, Inc., 122 N.J. Super. 88, 90 (App. Div.), aff'd o.b., 62 N.J. 581 (1973).

A reviewing court shall limit "its inquiry solely" to the sufficiency of evidence upon which the compensation judge relied, with "due regard to the [compensation judge's] opportunity . . . to hear[] the witnesses [and judge] their credibility and with due regard to his expertise." Ramos v. M&F Fashions, 154 N.J. 583, 594 (1998)(citing Bradley v. Henry Townsend Moving & Storage Co., 78 N.J. 532, 534 (1979)). Only where the findings are not supported by the record may an appellate court "appraise the record as if [it] were deciding the matter at inception and make [its] own findings and conclusions." Pioneer Nat'l Title Ins. Co. v. Lucas, 155 N.J. Super. 332, 338 (App. Div.), aff'd o.b., 78 N.J. 320 (1978).

The testimony at trial revealed that the accident took place on an overpass located above the travel lanes of the New Jersey Turnpike on an access road that led to and from the Authority's maintenance yard, part of a complex the Authority shared with the New Jersey State Police. The Authority's maintenance yard is comprised of administrative buildings, garages, and a fuel pump and its employees park their vehicles in a designated parking area of the complex.

The State Police have barracks on the site and they investigated the accident and filed a report. That portion of the complex dedicated to use by the State Police is clearly delineated and the ...

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