The Continuous Employment Doctrine: An Ever-Expanding Pitfall For Employers
As a general rule, an accident which occurs while an employee is going to, or coming from, work, is not compensable in workers’ compensation. A notable exception to this general rule is the concept of “continuous employment”, which signficiantly broadens the scope of employment for traveling employees and on-call employees. Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Savannah v. Stevens, 261 Ga. App. 694, 583 S.E. 2d 553 (2003); Amedysis Home Health, Inc. v. Howard, 269 Ga. App. 656, 605 S.E. 2d 60 (2004). Recently, in Ray Bell Construction Company v. King, 2006 Ga. App. Slip (A05A2216) (Jan. 5, 2006), the Court of Appeals continued its trend in broadening the continuous employment doctrine. In particular, this decision has a substantial impact for employers who supply housing to their employees. As explained by the Court of Appeals, such cases will hinge on whether the employee has returned to the geographically defined area of his employment, which ultimately, is as broad or narrow as the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) and Appellate Division deem fit.
Background of Ray Bell Construction Company v. King
Ray Bell Construction Company hired the Claimant as a construction superintendent for a job site in Jackson, Georgia. The Claimant was required to live in a company housing complex in Fayetteville, Georgia, approximately 30 miles from the job site. The Claimant also had a company-owned truck at his disposal.
On Sunday, prior to resuming work on Monday, the Claimant drove for approximately two hours in his company truck to deliver family furniture to a storage shed on property the Claimant owned in Alamo, Georgia. While passing through Monroe County on his return trip (which is an adjacent county to the Claimant’s job site), another vehicle crossed the interstate median, collided with the Claimant’s truck, and killed the Claimant. The mother and guardian of the Claimant’s minor son filed a workers’ compensation claim for dependency benefits.
At the ALJ level, the Employer/Insurer argued that the Claimant was engaged in a purely personal mission when the accident occurred. Specifically, they argued that the Claimant was not scheduled to work that day, was not at his job site, and had used the company vehicle to run a purely personal errand. The Employer/Insurer reasoned that since the Claimant was on a purely personal mission, he was not within the scope of his employment.
Despite these arguments, the ALJ ruled in the Claimant’s favor. The ALJ explained that because the Claimant was carrying Ray Bell tools in his truck and was en route to either his company housing or his job site, his personal mission had ended, and was within the scope of his employment at that time. Although the ALJ cited to several doctrines to award dependency benefits, the Appellate Division only adopted the portion of the ALJ’s ruling that relied on the continuous employment doctrine. The Superior Court affirmed this decision, and Ray Bell appealed to the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals explained that the test for whether an employee is covered under the umbrella of continuous employment is:
whether an employee while working away from his home is required by his employment to lodge and work within an area geographically limited by the necessity of being available for work on the employer’s job site and is, in effect, continuous employment.
The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the day of the accident was not a regular working day for the Claimant. In addition, the court agreed that he was not doing anything work-related that day. As a result, the Claimant’s initial trip to Alamo, Georgia to move furniture took him outside the scope of his employment.
Despite these considerations, the court affirmed the decision in favor of the Claimant, finding that since he had completed his personal mission and was within the defined geographic area at the time of his accident, his injury was compensable under the continuous employment doctrine.
Personal Missions and “Turning Around”
The key portion of the Court of Appeals’ decision focused on when a personal mission ends, and turns into a work-related mission in the context of continuous employment. Obviously, if the accident occurred while the employee was on his way to deliver his furniture, the court would not find the claim compensable. The court reasoned that a personal mission comes to an end when the employee is on his return trip to his lodging or work site. However, the Court of Appeals attempted to explain the scope of “turning around” as a return to the scope of employment. In this context, a personal mission comes to an end when the traveling employee turns back to return to his lodging or work site.
“Turning around” does not automatically put the employee back within the scope of employment. If the employee is outside the designated employment area on personal business when the accident occurs, then the claim will not be compensable. The problem rests in defining that geographic area of employment. The court of appeals failed to provide any guidance on how far removed an employee can be from his employment site and still qualify as within the scope of employment. According to the court, defining the specific geographic area is a task left to the trial court’s discretion. However, so long as the accident occurs within this defined area while the employee is returning to his job site or company housing, then the accident could be covered, regardless if the Claimant is actually engaging in a work-related task. Therefore, a continuous employment situation will hinge on proving at the ALJ and Appellate Division level that the Claimant’s accident occurred outside the geographically defined area of employment.
Here, the court held that since the accident occurred at the adjacent county of his job site, that the Claimant was within close enough proximity for his claim to be compensable. Therefore, it stands to reason that if an accident occurred the moment that the Claimant began his return trip, the accident would not be compensable.
Ray Bell Construction touches on several important considerations for Employers and Insurers. If anything, it has further expanded the scope of employment in a continuous employment situation. An employee can unnecessarily place himself to these “perils of the road” for non-work related reasons, and still receive workers’ compensation for this deviation so long as the Claimant was on his way back and close to his geographically defined area of employment. However, the circumstances, which give rise to the geographic area of employment will be different for each case, and sometimes impossible to clearly delineate.
The lesson to be learned from Ray Bell is that there are two potential defenses when dealing with a continuous employment claim. Deviation from employment for a personal mission is the first line of defense in this situation. The first question when dealing with continuous employment is whether the Claimant was engaged in a purely personal mission at the time of the accident. However, based on this recent case law coming from the Court of Appeals, a “personal mission” is being eroded as a defense to the continuous employment doctrine so long as the Claimant was returning to his employment area.
Second, and most importantly, an Employer/Insurer must prove to the ALJ and Appellate Division that even if the Claimant was returning, his accident occurred outside the designated area. The key problem with Ray Bell Construction is the Court of Appeals’ failure to define a clear standard regarding how far removed a Claimant’s deviation is required to constituted a personal mission. Therefore, it is critical for the Employer/Insurer to engage in a detailed investigation of the claim. Practically, the closer to the job site an Employer can provide housing to an employee, the more limited this doctrine becomes.
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.
H. Michael Bagley