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It's Not Personal. It's Business: New Case Erodes Deviation Defense

May 02, 2012 BY Ryan Klee

         In Stokes v. Coweta County Board of Education (A11A2062),  the Court of Appeals recently decided a case that expands the circumstances of the type of personal actions and potential employment deviations, which still make an accident compensable.  As a rule, for an accident to be compensable, an employee’s accident must arise both “out of” and “in the course of” his employment.  When a deviation occurs, an employee breaks the continuity of employment for purposes of their own and is injured before bring themselves back into employment.  As such, these claims are not compensable.   

            Examples of deviations where accidents are not compensable include employees who leave an Employer’s premises to go home or to a restaurant for a meal, employees who run personal errands, or employees who go on an excursion solely for personal entertainment.   Such injuries occur during a time when the employee is off duty, is free to do as they please, and occur when the employee is not performing any job duties.  As a result, they are not compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act.  However, the extent of deviation is critical in determining compensability in such cases, and obviously, is a highly fact-sensitive determination.  Stokes sheds light on such circumstances where a potential deviation is found to be compensable. 

            In Stokes, the Claimant worked as a custodian at an elementary school.  One of her duties was to unlock and open the gates leading to the school parking lot before other employees arrived each morning.  On May 3, 2010, the Claimant drove up to the school’s gate at 5:45 a.m.  It was raining very heavily and was very dark at that time according to the record.  The Claimant pulled her car as close to the gate as she could so her headlights would shine on the lock.  While unlocking the gate, her car began to roll downhill and away from the gate.  The Claimant instantly ran towards the car in an attempt to stop it from damaging school property or her car.  After taking a few steps, she tripped and fell to the ground.  The car then rolled over her left foot and eventually came to a stop in a wooded area on school property.  This accident ultimately resulted in the need for the Claimant’s foot to be amputated a few days later. 

            At the hearing, the ALJ granted the Claimant’s request for benefits after finding she sustained an injury arising out of and in the course of her employment.  The Appellate Division subsequently reversed the ALJ’s decision and denied benefits entirely, finding the Claimant’s accident did not arise out of her employment.  They reasoned that while her job duties included opening the gate, unlocking the building, empting trash cans, as well as other custodial functions, her job did not include going after a moving vehicle.  They found her actions most aptly qualified as a personal mission to protect her personal property rather than anything related to her employment duties (such as preventing injury to herself, another employee, or to protect the employer’s property).  On appeal, the Claimant the Superior Court affirmed the decision of the Appellate Division.

            The Court of Appeals subsequently reversed the denial of the claim, finding the Claimant’s claim compensable.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals determined the Appellate Division relied upon an erroneous theory of what qualifies as a deviation.  The Court of Appeals acknowledged that at the time of the Claimant’s car began to roll, she was on duty (not on break), she was physically located precisely where her job duties required her to be at that time (i.e. the driveway gate), and she was unlocking the gate, a task required by her job duties and of benefits to the employer.

            Critical was the finding that but for the necessity that she stop her car on the sloped driveway and exit the car to open the gate, the accident would not have occurred. In other words, her employment duties put her in the position for her accident to occur, rather than some personal deviation.  The Court of Appeals also placed importance on the timing of the Claimant’s reaction to the rolling car.  In other words, she responded instinctively and instantaneously to an unexpected and dangerous situation that arose directly out of the performance of her job duties.  The Court of Appeals contrasted this with instances where an employee consciously decided to take advantage of a break in the work day when she was free to as she pleased, to run a personal errand.  Here, they found her actions were not entirely personal in nature.  The Court of Appeals also emphasized the humanitarian nature of the Workers’ Compensation Act in finding this was not a purely personal mission.

            The lesson to be learned from this case is that the Court of Appeals is ever-expanding the realm of what type or personal deviation will still pull an employee’s accident into the realm of compensability.  Obviously, each case is a highly fact-sensitive exercise and should be approached accordingly.  However, the trend in such cases is to give the Claimant’s the benefit of the doubt even when such missions, as in Stokes, appear at the outset to be entirely personal in nature.    This is particularly the case when a Claimant’s employment puts her in a position of risk of injury, such as in Stokes.   

The Journal is a publication for the clients of Drew Eckl & Farnham, LLP. It is written in a general format and is not intended to be legal advice to any specific circumstance. Legal Opinions may vary when based upon subtle factual differences. All rights reserved. 

Editorial Board:

H. Michael Bagley