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Johnson-Tucker v. Plainfield Board of Education

July 1, 2008


On appeal from the Division of Workers' Compensation, Department of Labor, Claim Petition No. 2003-35817.

Per curiam.


Argued April 9, 2008

Before Judges Cuff, Lisa and Simonelli.

This is a workers' compensation case. The sole issue is whether the compensation judge erred in finding compensable under the special mission rule petitioner's injuries, sustained while eating breakfast in the restaurant of the hotel at which she was staying during an out-of-state convention she was required to attend by her employer. See N.J.S.A. 34:15-36. We find no error and affirm.

After a trial, the compensation judge made these factual findings, which are well supported by the record. See Close v. Kordulak Bros., 44 N.J. 589, 599 (1965). Petitioner, a school principal, was required by her employer, the Plainfield Board of Education (BOE), to attend a five-day conference in Savannah, Georgia. The instructional training sessions would take place at the convention hotel, but that hotel lacked sufficient rooms for all attendees. Therefore, a number of hotels were available for attendees. Petitioner stayed at one of them, the Marriott Riverfront Hotel, which was across the water from the convention hotel. Petitioner was transported to and from the convention hotel by a ferry boat each day.

The BOE paid her salary while she was attending the convention, and it paid her airfare for travel. The BOE also paid for the hotel accommodations and provided payment for food while petitioner was at the convention. Petitioner ate breakfast each morning at her hotel, and then proceeded by water taxi to the convention hotel for training classes.

On the morning of January 24, 2003, petitioner followed her usual routine and went down to breakfast. She sat down at her table and the chair collapsed, causing her injuries.

Based upon these facts, the compensation judge found that petitioner was on a special mission for the BOE. He found it significant that she was there for multiple days and "was expected to sustain herself by eating." She was provided money for meals and would be expected by her employer to eat breakfast as part of her mission, all of which was "part of her attendance at this convention." The judge reasoned that the petitioner was supposed to be at the hotel. She was supposed to travel from her hotel to the convention center everyday to take these classes. Breakfast was part of her daily activities. It was paid for and expected to be part of the daily activities.

The breakfast in the hotel was incidental to and in the direct performance of her job duties, when she is sent away to another city [to] attend classes at a convention center. . . . One would not expect her to be able to handle a full day of work sessions without having breakfast, and she was placed in a strange dining room maintained and controlled by strangers. She was there at the request of and the demand of her employer. It is part of her job duties. It was part of her responsibility to attend the convention and incidental to that attendance of that convention. Clearly, the injury was in the course of the employment and certainly arose out of the employment. She would not have been in this situation but for the fact that the company had sent her to this conference as part of their responsibility to maintain themselves as an Abbott School District. I find this injury to be compensable. I find it to have arisen out of and in the course of her employment.

The controlling section of the Workers' Compensation Act provides in relevant 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. [N.J.S.A. 34:15-36.]

The BOE argues that the compensation judge's application of this provision to the facts of this case was impermissibly overbroad. The BOE argues that petitioner was engaged in a purely personal activity while eating breakfast, and not engaged in the direct performance of the duties assigned or directed by her employer. Accordingly, the BOE argues that the injuries are not compensable. We do not agree.

The special mission rule has been defined as follows:

When an employee, having identifiable time and space limits on his employment, makes an off-premises journey which would normally not be covered under the usual going and coming rule, the journey may be brought within the course of employment by the fact that the trouble and time of making the journey, or the special inconvenience, hazard, or urgency of making it in the particular circumstances, is itself sufficiently substantial to be viewed as an integral part of the service itself. [Nemchick v. Thatcher Glass Mfg. ...

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