Injured Worker in PA in Scope and Course of Work Doing Unasked Favor for Employer

On our blog, we have previously discussed cases where the dispute in a case is whether an injured worker was actually engaged in his or her employment duties at the time of the injury (what we call the “scope and course” of their work).  As you may have noticed, these cases often depend on the exact facts involved, making it hard to discern a general rule.  A case recently published from the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania did nothing to change this status.

In Grill v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (U.S. Airways), the injured worker was at his job, and was on work time.  The accident happened when Claimant was helping his coworkers move a locker he brought from home to replace a battered one the Employer had been using.  No supervisor had authorized, or was even aware of, this action.  While moving the locker, the injured worker suffered shaft fractures in his fourth and fifth metacarpals, which required surgical treatment by the Philadelphia Hand Center.

When the claim was denied by the workers’ comp insurance carrier, the injured worker filed a Claim Petition.  After hearing the evidence, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) denied the Claim Petition.  Specifically, the WCJ found that the injured worker was not required by his job to move the locker and that he had not sought permission from his supervisor to move the locker.  As such, “Claimant was not engaged in the course and scope of his employment when he was injured.”

This decision was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).  While the injured worker may have believed he was furthering the interests of his Employer in his actions, he did not seek permission or authority from a supervisor to take such action.  Therefore, said the WCAB, the claim was properly denied.

Upon further appeal, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania reversed the decision, finding the Claim Petition should have been granted.  The notion, as embraced by the WCJ and WCAB, that there had to be a “positive work order” (or approval from the Employer) to perform an action, before that action would be found to “further the interest of his/her employer,” is incorrect.  The Court further explained:

“Here, as the WCJ found and the Board emphasized, Claimant was not performing his typical job duties on the premises at the time of the injury and did not receive express permission from Employer to install the locker, but this alone does not take him outside the scope of his employment.”

Quoting a previous case, the Court then added:

‘“[a]n employee may be doing something other than the exact work assigned to him, and he may not be strictly at his assigned work, either as to time or place, yet the continuity of the employment is not broken unless such activity is wholly foreign to his employment or constitutes an abandonment thereof.’  Consequently, the pertinent and dispositive inquiry in this case is whether, at the time of the injury, Claimant abandoned his employment or was engaged in an activity that is wholly foreign to his employment.”

Since the actions of the injured worker in this case were not for his personal benefit, nor the benefit of a coworker, and were undertaken with the honest attempt to benefit his Employer, the action here was within the scope and course of employment, and the claim for the resulting injuries should have been granted.

The Court noted that its finding is consistent with the words, and the spirit, of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act:

“The precedent which the Majority follows is clear and in keeping with the legislative intent that the Act be liberally construed to effectuate its humanitarian objectives. See Sporio v. Workmen’s Compensation Appeal Board (Songer Construction), 717 A.2d 525, 528 (Pa. 1998) (‘The Act is remedial in nature and its purpose is to benefit the workers of this Commonwealth. The Act is to be liberally construed to effectuate its humanitarian objectives. In addition, borderline interpretations of the Act are to be construed in the injured party’s favor.’).”

This explanation was necessary, since there was a dissent filed, stating that the decision rendered by the WCJ and WCAB should have been affirmed.  Because the actions of the injured worker here were voluntary, and not approved by the Employer, he should not receive workers’ compensation benefits.

As attorneys who represent the injured worker, we find the dissent view to be overly Draconian.  To think that benefits would be denied to an employee, who was sincerely trying to benefit his employer, smacks as extremely unfair.  Interestingly, as the majority opinion noted, the Employer in this case continued to use the locker brought in by the injured worker, showing that, in fact, the injured worker was correct in believing his actions were of a benefit to Employer.  Kudos to the majority opinion for doing the right thing.