Fatally Injured Worker Still in Scope and Course of Job While Thwarting Robbery

Whether one was actually in the scope and course of his or her job at the time of a work injury is not an uncommon reason for litigation. This is an issue we have addressed on our blog in the past.

Recently, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania tackled this issue in Wetzel v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Parkway Service Station). Here, the worker was a manager at a gas station. He had arrived early for his shift to go over a problem with the cash register. Once that issue was completed, the worker was stocking some shelves until his shift was actually started. During this time, a thief came in and attempted to grab money from the register. The worker chased the thief outside. When the thief got in his car, the worker drew a gun and ordered the thief to stop. Unfortunately, the thief elected to instead run over the worker with his car. The worker suffered very serious injuries, which led to his death several months later.

A Claim Petition was filed on behalf of the worker (not a Fatal Claim Petition, because the worker had no wife, children or eligible dependents). The workers’ comp insurance carrier defended the Claim Petition by alleging that carrying a gun was a violation of a positive work order, and also that the worker was no longer in the scope and course of his employment at the time he was injured. The Claim Petition was granted by the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ), but this decision was reversed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), which concluded that attempting to apprehend the thief was outside the scope and course of the job.

Upon appeal to the Commonwealth Court of PA, the WCAB was reversed and the granting of the Claim Petition by the WCJ was reinstated. First, the Court agreed there was no positive work order. While the employee handbook did prohibit carrying a gun while working, the employer admitted the handbook was not given out. Further, the Court noted that the same worker defeated a robbery several years before, using his gun, and was not disciplined (for either carrying the gun, or for trying to defend against the robbery). The Court found that the worker was required to be on the premises of his employer at the time, and that he was attempting to further the interests of his employer. Finally, the Court concluded that the entire series of events took place in mere moments, which did not allow sufficient time for the worker to actually “abandon” his scope and course of employment.

As the Court often does, language was cited from years of cases, holding that “this Court must keep in mind that the [Act] is remedial in nature and is intended to benefit the worker; therefore, the Act must be liberally construed to effectuate its humanitarian objectives.” Here, though, the Court actually took those words to heart, and did what justice and fairness required.