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Course and Scope: Don’t Fall Victim to the Geography Rule

Pennsylvania
September 12, 2019
August 7, 2019
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In Peters v. WCAB (Cintas Corp), No. 1835 C.D. 2017, the Commonwealth Court was tasked with deciding another traveling employee course and scope issue and they seemed to establish a bright line rule, based solely on geography.  

Claimant’s position was a uniform sales representative, whose home branch was in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but he spent part of his week working at the home branch calling clients, scheduling appointments, and doing paperwork, and part of his job on the road, meeting clients, showing product, and negotiating contracts.  On the date of injury, claimant was traveling all day, and after his last appointment, he drove to Allentown to attend a celebration with co-workers at a restaurant, Tilted Kilt.  While driving home from the celebration, he was in a motor vehicle accident.  He filed a claim petition seeking wage loss and medical benefits due to his injuries.  

The trial judge dismissed the petition, the board affirmed, and the claimant appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court started its analysis of the issue by noting that the definition of course and scope of employment is broader for traveling employees, and when an employee is determined to be a traveling employee, he is entitled to a presumption that he is in the course and scope of employment when traveling to or from work.  To rebut the presumption, the employer must prove that the employee’s actions at the time of injury were “so foreign to and removed from” his usual employment, that they constitute abandonment of employment.

The Commonwealth Court then analyzed some of the earlier cases applying the traveling employee standard.  In those earlier cases, the court noted that a theme emerged:  accidents that occurred outside the vicinity of the claimant’s home were compensable because “the homeward trip was a necessary part of the[ir] business excursion[s].”  They synthesized that “traveling employees do not have the option of avoiding the hazards of traveling homeward.”

Here, the claimant left his work vicinity (Allentown), passed his home on the highway, and went to Tilted Kilt.  The court felt that passing his home was significant.  They felt that the “homeward trip” had already ended when he passed his home.  The case amounts to a rule based upon geography, rather than a thorough assessment of the presumption/rebuttal standards.

In fact, the decision drew harsh dissent from two judges, who felt that the claimant did not abandon his work duties by attending the employer-sponsored event.  Those judges cited important facts, including that the employer invited claimant to the event, the employer organized and paid for this social event, and the employer regularly held events like this during sales blitzes.

The dissenting judges went on to analyze the cases cited by the majority in more detail, including the fact that in one of the matters a salesman completed work around 7:45 PM, went to a hotel to have drinks and talk business, and hours later, about midnight, he left and was killed in an accident.  This decedent was awarded benefits, because there was no substantial abandonment of job duties.  

As such, the dissenting judges thought this case was more akin to those cases where the “in furtherance of employment” standard was met, since the event was employer-sponsored and attending these types of events fosters camaraderie, which serves the employer’s interests.  Thus, bypassing the home was an insignificant detail.  

The dissenting judges thought the above was a more appropriate analysis, especially given the fact that claimant’s home could have been located on the other side of Tilted Kilt.  Then, he would not have passed his home, but would have still been on his way there.  They did not feel that a bright line rule, based solely upon geography, was a sufficient and fair way to decide the matter.

In workers’ compensation cases, there are many ways for an employee to be brought within the course and scope of employment when injuries occur offsite.  First, if they are off the premises and furthering their employer’s affairs, they are within the course and scope of employment, and this is true even for stationary employees.  Ways in which you can be furthering your employer’s interests include going on a special mission or assignment for your employer, or attending a social event that was employer-sponsored (like the dissenting analysis here).

Accordingly, it is not wise to craft your case around what seems to be a bright-line rule based upon geography.  While it may be a fact you elicit and argue, it should not be the only one.  Course and scope cases are inherently fact intensive and if you find yourself with a possible course and scope defense, the facts and witnesses should be flushed out thoroughly, with all of the above-noted standards in mind, especially the “in furtherance standard” since it can be manipulated to include broad concepts such as “camaraderie” or “healthy living” which only tangentially further your employer’s interests, but have been held to be sufficient enough to be compensable.