Back in July, 2019, we blogged, unhappily, about the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania decision in Peters v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Cintas Corporation). This decision found a traveling employee to not be in the scope and course of his employment when he was injured in a motor vehicle accident after leaving a work-sponsored event. Today, it is our pleasure to report that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has issued a decision vacating the decision of Commonwealth Court. Essentially, the Supreme Court agreed (as did we) with the two dissenting judges on the Commonwealth Court.
Just to give a quick recap, the injured worker (“Claimant”) was a salesman, who went to various sites in his day. There was no dispute that he was a “travelling” employee for the purposes of the PA Workers’ Compensation Act (Critical, since commuting to work is not generally covered with a stationary employee, absent some other factor, such as “a special mission”).
One day, after completing his work, Claimant drove to a bar, where his employer was sponsoring an event, typical of an after-sales blitz. The employer paid for the food and drink. To get to this bar, Claimant had to actually pass the exit for his home. After the event, Claimant was injured in a car accident.
A Claim Petition was filed, and the case was “bifurcated” (meaning the Workers’ Compensation Judge [WCJ] would initially decide whether Claimant was within the scope and course of his employment at the time of the injury). Finding that the event was not mandatory, and Claimant had to pass the exit for his home in getting there, the WCJ found that Claimant was not within the scope and course of his work. This was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, and the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, as covered in our blog entry.
However, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania found that the Commonwealth Court did not properly analyze the case based on the Claimant being a travelling employee. As the Court noted, citing Roman v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Dept of Envtl. Res.), a 1992 Commonwealth Court case :
“With respect to traveling employees, these courts have consistently applied the following presumption: ‘[w]hen a traveling employee is injured after setting out on the business of his [or her] employer, it is presumed that he [or she] was furthering the employer’s business at the time of the injury’ unless the employer rebuts the presumption by showing that the employee’s actions, at some point prior to the injury, “were so foreign to and removed from his [or her] usual employment that they constitute an abandonment of that employment.”
It is important to note that one does not “abandon” his or her employment by simply making a temporary departure from such work. In other words, an employee is not precluded from attending to personal comforts, such as restroom breaks and authorized lunch breaks. Instead, the case law requires that the departure be, “so foreign to and removed from his usual employment that they constitute an abandonment of that employment.”
The Supreme Court then summed up this situation, “Thus, for the traveling employee doctrine to be implicated, Claimant must demonstrate: (1) that he is a traveling employee and (2) that he set out on the day of the accident on the business of Employer. The WCJ acknowledged that Claimant was a traveling employee and that Claimant set out on the day of the accident to visit customers in the northern portion of his sales territory. The record supports these findings, and the Employer does not appear to dispute them.” Therefore, the Supreme Court found that the only remaining element is whether Claimant had abandoned his employment.
In this analysis, the Supreme Court opined that the Commonwealth Court had placed far too much importance on the simple fact that Claimant passed the exit for his home on the way to the event. As the Court noted, “An employee’s course of employment does not end simply because the employee passed his or her home during the workday. For example, if Claimant had passed his home while traveling from one customer to the next, he surely would not have ceased to be in the course of his employment simply by passing his home.”
The Supreme Court found that the dissenting judges had looked at the situation correctly, and there was no abandonment of the employment here. Attending an employer-sponsored event, typically held after a sales blitz, can hardly be said to be “so foreign to and removed from his regular employment to be considered abandonment of employment.”
In acknowledging that the WCJ found the event at the bar to not be mandatory, and to be social in nature, is not the same as it being not work-related. The Supreme Court explained, “The record reflects that Employer hosted and sponsored the event. While work may not have been discussed at the event, the event still benefited Employer by fostering relationships and improving morale.”
Based on this analysis, the Supreme Court found that Claimant was within the scope and course of his work when he left the bar. However, there remained some conflicting evidence on whether Claimant attended another event after the bar, and was actually injured going home from the second event. Since this would require a finding of fact, appropriately made by a WCJ, the Supreme Court “remanded” (sent the case back down) to the WCJ, to decide this remaining issue.
Regardless of the final outcome here, however, this case is extremely important the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation system. It clearly sets forth the presumptions to which a travelling employee is entitled. And, hopefully, it avoids the type of unfair and unjust decision as that initially issued by the Commonwealth Court.