Travelling Employee Not Covered By PA Workers’ Compensation Act After Attending Employer-Sponsored Event

While workers in Pennsylvania are generally all covered by the PA Workers’ Compensation Act (other than certain classes, such as Federal workers, some of those in the shipping industry, and others), not all are treated equally.  There is a stark difference between “stationary” employees (who go to the same job location each day) and “travelling” employees (who do not).  But, as we see in a recent decision of the Commonwealth Court, even the additional latitude of the travelling employee is not always enough.

In Peters v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Cintas Corporation), the employee was undisputedly a “traveling” employee.  As a salesman, most of his time was spent out on the road, travelling to various accounts.  One day, after working his full day out in the field, he came back toward his house, passed the exit for his house, and continued on to a bar, where he attended what the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania termed “a celebration with coworkers.”  When he went home, after the “celebration,” he was injured in a car accident.

The employee (the “Claimant”) filed a Claim Petition, alleging his injury took place while in the scope and course of his employment.  After litigating before the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ), the Claim Petition was denied.  The WCJ found that Claimant was not in the scope and course of his employment at the time of the injury.  This decision was affirmed by the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB).

Upon further appeal, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania also affirmed.  As the Court noted, a travelling employee “is entitled to a presumption that he is in the course and scope of employment when he is traveling to or from work.”  Indeed, as the Court also observed, citing another case, “’To rebut this presumption, [an e]mployer ha[s] to establish [employee’s] actions at the time of the accident were ‘so foreign to and removed from’ his usual employment that those actions constituted abandonment of employment.’”

When the Court examined other, similar, cases, the Court found that a Claim Petition would be granted where the injured worker was not yet in the vicinity of his or her home, since “traveling employees do not have ‘the option of avoiding’ the hazards of traveling homeward.”  Looking at the facts here, the Court found significant that the Claimant had passed home and continued on to the bar, specifically observing, “not only was Claimant in the vicinity of his home, he chose to pass his home to attend the happy hour, after which the accident occurred.”

The Claimant then argued that the event at the bar was a work-sponsored event anyway, so he was still in the scope and course of his employment.  This was quickly dismissed by the Court, which said that the WCJ “determined that the meeting at the Tilted Kilt was not furthering the interests of Employer, but rather was a social gathering.”  Since the WCJ is the ultimate finder of fact, said the Court, they cannot disturb such a finding.

A strong two-judge dissent pointed out that Claimant’s employer invited him to the event, that the employer organized and paid for the event, that the employer “regularly held a social event during sales blitzes,” and that the event took place at the end of the workday.  Under those facts, the dissenting judges felt it was absurd that attending such an event was an action “so foreign to and removed from his usual employment that they constitute an abandonment of that employment.”  As such, the dissenting judges felt that Claimant remained in the scope and course of his employment.  Since this would be a “question of law,” rather than a “finding of fact,” the Court is not bound by the findings of fact made by the WCJ.

Finally, a concurring opinion felt that the majority was correct to affirm the denial of the Claim Petition, but that the focus on the location of the event (after Claimant passed the exit for his house) was irrelevant.  The concurring judge felt that once the WCJ found as fact that attending the event was “voluntary,” the Claim Petition should have been denied.

We would like to think that we maintain an objective view on these things, but we are having trouble accepting the view of the majority (or the concurring judge).  How in the world could an employee “abandon” his employment by attending an event sponsored by, and paid for by, his employer?