To have a workers’ compensation case in Pennsylvania, one must suffer an injury while in the scope and course of employment. That phrase, “scope and course,” is not specifically stated in the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, but is a creation of courts, over the years, interpreting the Act. We have dealt with these issues many times, often with an injury which occurs while commuting to or from work. But, what if the injury happens after someone is no longer even employed?
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania addressed this issue recently in Marazas v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Vitas Healthcare Corporation). Here, the injured worker quit his job after a dispute with his manager regarding an assignment. The injured worker handed over his keys and phone, and the manager told the injured worker he had to remove his personal belongings from the employer’s truck. According to employer’s policy, the manager escorted Claimant to the truck. While in this process, the injured worker tripped over a pallet jack and fell, hurting his left ankle, left knee, and upper, middle and lower back.
Believing he was not employed at that point, the injured worker filed a civil suit against the employer for his injuries. The employer defended the civil suit by arguing, in formal court pleadings, that the injured worker was in the scope of employment at the time of his injury, and therefore, workers’ compensation was his exclusive remedy. Based on this pleading, the injured worker withdrew his civil action and filed a Claim Petition in the workers’ compensation system.
The next step was not hard to predict. The workers’ compensation insurance carrier defended the Claim Petition by arguing, yep, you guessed it, that the injured worker was not in the scope of his employment at the time of the injury, so the claim should be denied (whether this is clever use of the legal system, or simply shameful, is for the reader to decide).
After litigation before a Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ), which was appealed and then sent back to the WCJ, the Claim Petition was granted. The WCJ found the injured worker more credible than the witnesses offered by the employer. While the injured worker did, indeed, quit his job prior to the injury, he was still within the scope of his
employment when he fell on Employer’s premises. As the Court observed, the WCJ found:
“Claimant was furthering Employer’s interests at the time of injury because “[he] was
injured where his Employer had directed him to go and perform a requested task.”
She emphasized Claimant was “directed to return to his truck” and was “performing the required acts” when injured.”
Upon appeal, the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) reversed the decision of the WCJ. The WCAB concluded that the injury could not be within the scope of employment because the injured worker had quit his job prior to the injury.
The injured worker then appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, who reversed the WCAB, and reinstated the decision of the WCJ, granting the Claim Petition. First, the injured worker argued that Employer was “estopped” from denying that he was in the scope of employment at the time of the injury, since that was the opposite of the position taken in formal documents in the civil case. The Court decided that there was no estoppel here, because the injured worker voluntarily withdrew the civil suit. However, the Court went on to find that the WCJ was correct in her analysis – the injury did take place on the employer’s premises, while the injured worker was doing a task assigned by the employer. These facts fit the unlikely situation where the actions took place after the quitting of the job, but were still “furthering Employer’s interests.” One could conclude that quitting in this case was a process, and the injured worker was still within that process at the time he was hurt. As with most cases of this type, the exact facts make all of the difference, so how much of a precedent is being set remains unclear.
Given dictates of fairness and justice, there can be little question that this was the “right” result. It is very satisfying when Pennsylvania’s appellate courts come, for whatever reason, to the “right” result.