On appeal from the New Jersey Department of Labor, Division of Workers' Compensation.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 27, 2010
Before Judges Sabatino and J. N. Harris.
This workers' compensation appeal concerns whether an eye injury of petitioner, Guillermo Chaverri, occurred during the scope of his employment with respondent, Cace Trucking Incorporated ("Cace"). We conclude as a matter of law that it did, and consequently reverse the contrary ruling of the compensation judge.
The facts are substantially undisputed. Petitioner was the owner and driver of a tractor trailer. In November 2001, petitioner entered into a written lease*fn1 agreement with Cace. Pursuant to that agreement, petitioner agreed to use his tractor trailer to perform hauling services exclusively for Cace. Petitioner further agreed to maintain, register and insure the tractor trailer at his own expense. In particular, Article IX of the agreement obligated petitioner to maintain the tractor trailer "in a good and safe condition and in compliance with the regulations of all applicable public authorities."
During the relevant times leading up to petitioner's eye injury, he would routinely drive his rig on weekdays to Cace's yard in Elizabeth, where he would receive hauling instructions from a Cace dispatcher. On weekends, petitioner would typically spend hours performing maintenance on his vehicle. Initially, petitioner routinely parked the vehicle at Cace's yard, where he would work on it on Saturdays and Sundays. Petitioner would pay $25 weekly to Cace for the right to park his rig there overnight. Eventually, however, petitioner concluded that the $25 fee was not worth the ongoing expense, so he began to drive his rig home on weekends. He decided to perform the maintenance at his home, using his own tools.
On Sunday, December 22, 2003, petitioner was performing maintenance on the tractor portion of the vehicle at his residence when he injured his right eye. It is undisputed that he lost all sight in that eye. He also claimed that the incident caused him a psychiatric disability.
Petitioner consequently filed a workers compensation claim against Cace. Cace opposed the claim, contending that the accident occurred outside of petitioner's employment with the company. A hearing before a compensation judge ensued, at which petitioner was the sole witness. The judge also considered as an exhibit the parties' written lease agreement. The hearing was bifurcated to address liability issues first before medical damages were considered.
At the end of the hearing on liability, the compensation judge issued a bench ruling. As a preliminary matter, the judge concluded that petitioner was an employee of Cace, not an independent contractor, given that Cace "had total control of the workday, told petitioner exactly what to do all day, and petitioner was precluded from working for anyone else during the time period that he worked for [Cace]."
Nevertheless, the judge also found that petitioner's eye injury occurred outside of the scope of his employment with Cace. The judge distinguished various cases cited by petitioner on the scope issue. The judge also found significant that petitioner was not on duty at all times, that he was not precluded by Cace from using his tractor trailer for his own use, and that Cace did not require petitioner to do his own repairs. The judge also noted that Cace was "not in the business of maintaining vehicles."
Based upon these findings, the compensation judge dismissed petitioner's claims. This appeal followed. Petitioner maintains that the judge incorrectly applied the law, and that the operative facts clearly show that petitioner was acting outside the scope of his employment when his eye injury transpired.
"An employee is entitled to compensation for an accidental injury under the Workers' Compensation Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 34:15-1 to -142, if the injury 'a[rose] out of and in the course of employment.'" Cooper v. Barnickel Enters., Inc., 411 N.J. Super. 343, 346 (App. Div. 2010) (alteration in original) (quoting N.J.S.A. 34:15-7); see also Jumpp v. City of Ventnor, 177 N.J. 470, 476 (2003); Acikgoz v. N.J. Tpk. Auth., 398 N.J. Super. 79, 87 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 195 N.J. 418 (2008).
The definition of "employment" under the statute is multi-faceted, and includes situations in which the employee is physically away from the employer's premises but nevertheless is "engaged in the direct performance of duties assigned or directed by the ...