A topic often litigated in the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation system is whether an injured worker was within the scope and course of his or her employment at the time of the incident. Accordingly, this is a topic that is no stranger to this blog. Though this area continues to depend drastically on the facts within each case, a recent decision by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania does shed some additional guidance on such cases.
In Henderson v. WP Ventures, Inc. (Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board), a custodian was waiting to be able to perform his usual tasks. He was being prevented from doing so by the facility being cleaned and ventilated after a roof leak. Taking advantage of his down time, the injured worker stepped out for a cigarette and to grab a sandwich from a nearby shop. While outside of the facility, the injured worker fell and hurt his head.
A Claim Petition was filed, and litigated, before a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ). The injured worker testified that if his supervisor was not around (as was the case that day), he was permitted to take limited breaks without express permission when there was idle time. This was not disputed by the employer. After hearing the evidence, the WCJ granted the Claim Petition. Specifically, the WCJ found, “Claimant was taking a cigarette break when he slipped and fell on the walkway outside of the building in which he was working, and this was a minor deviation from employment that would fall under the personal comfort doctrine.”
Upon appeal, however, the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) reversed this decision. Since the injured worker was tending to “personal needs” and “not directly furthering the employer’s business,” the injured worker had left the scope and course of his employment, and was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for such injury.
The injured worker then appealed the decision of the WCAB to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, who reversed the WCAB. The Court concluded that the WCJ had correctly analyzed the facts, and that the actions of Claimant were simply “personal comforts,” which did not take him out of the scope and course of his employment.
In making this conclusion, the Court quoted precedent making clear that “neither small temporary departures from work to administer to personal comforts or convenience, nor inconsequential or innocent departures break the course of employment.”
It appears the Court attached a great deal of importance to the fact that this was not a formal or scheduled break, and that the injured worker was coming right back, with his sandwich, in case he was needed for work. As the Court noted:
“Remaining aware that this is a case-by-case inquiry and that each matter will depend on its evidence, the foregoing cases suggest that the personal comfort doctrine may apply when the claimant’s time away from the work premises is informal in nature, purely devoted to personal comfort of a physical nature, such as a cigarette break or to procure food, and brief enough that the course of employment is not broken.”
“The doctrine may not apply, however, if the worker is on a formalized break or lunch period during which an employee is likely to enjoy a degree of autonomy, however brief, and may engage in other activities in addition to immediate personal needs.”
Ultimately, based on the facts in this case, the Court held that stepping out for a cigarette and a sandwich, to bring back to work, was a minor enough departure to fit within the personal comfort doctrine, such that the injured worker remained within the scope and course of his employment. This despite the fact that the injury took place outside of the workplace. Therefore, the Court reversed the decision of the WCAB, and reinstated the decision of the WCJ, which granted the Claim Petition and awarded workers’ compensation benefits.
As we conclude in each of these “scope and course” cases, having an experienced PA workers’ compensation attorney is key. The case will depend on the facts and how the matter is litigated. Be sure to carefully consider whether the attorney you select is certified as a specialist in PA workers’ compensation law (as with both of our attorneys).