June 19, 2017 BY John Adkisson
Injuries to "Off-Duty" Law Enforcement Officers
If a law enforcement officer sustains an alleged work-related injury while “on-duty” for the law enforcement agency, the compensability is analyzed in the same manner as any alleged work-related injury.
An injury is compensable under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act only if the injury “arises out of” and occurs “in the course of” employment pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 34-9-1(4).
The “arises out of” requirement goes toward a causal connection between an employee’s work and the alleged injury. In order for an injury to occur “in the course of” employment, the injury must take place during the time of employment, at a place where the employee may perform the employer’s duties, and while the employee is actually performing duties.
If an officer is injured while “off-duty,” the analysis is different.
Generally, injuries that occur “going to and coming from” work are not compensable. See Longuepee v. Ga. Institute of Technology, 269 Ga. App. 884, 605 S.E.2d 455 (2004). However, injuries to employees in “continuous employment” are an exception to the general rule. The doctrine of “continuous employment” can apply to on call and traveling employees. Under the doctrine, an injury to an off-duty officer can be found compensable. However, the analysis of the compensability is very fact specific.
In Harris Co. Sheriff’s Office v. Negrete, 259 Ga. App. 891, 578 S.E.2d 579 (2003), the claimant was an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, wearing his uniform, and driving his county-owned patrol car to his part-time security guard job at a manufacturing plant when he had a motor vehicle accident. The Court of Appeals noted that deputies were on call even when not working. The sheriff’s department’s policy allowed deputies to use their patrol cars to travel to security jobs when off-duty. Department policy also required deputies to wear their uniforms and carry their badges, identification, and county-issued firearm. In addition, the deputies had to radio the dispatcher to let them know the patrol car was being placed in use when driving to and from security jobs, which meant the deputies had to respond to radio calls. In addition, the deputies were required to perform other “normal” deputy duties such as assisting drivers, providing back up to other officers, responding to alarms or incidents, and watching for suspicious and criminal behavior. Deputies were subject to discipline if they failed to follow these department rules. The sheriff testified “that there was no meaningful difference between a deputy’s duty while on regular patrol and while returning home from a part-time job.” Due in large part to that testimony, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), Appellate Division, and Superior Court in finding that the claimant’s motor vehicle accident “arose out of” and occurred “in the course of” employment.
One year after the decision in Negrete, the Georgia Supreme Court examined the off-duty officer issue in Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Savannah v. Stevens, 278 Ga. 166, 598 S.E. 2d 456 (2004). In Stevens, the claimant was driving her personal vehicle (rather than a law enforcement vehicle) to work while wearing her uniform when she had a motor vehicle accident. The ALJ found the accident compensable because the claimant was “subject to be called to duty 24 hours per day and was expected to preserve the peace and enforce the law even when off duty.” The Appellate Division, Superior Court, and Court of Appeals affirmed the ALJ’s decision. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court decisions and held the claim was not compensable. In reversing, the Supreme Court found that the injury occurred “in the course of” the claimant’s employment because she was required to enforce the law at any time she was in the Savannah city limits. However, the Supreme Court held the accident did not “arise out of” the claimant’s employment because there was no causal connection between her job and the motor vehicle accident. In making that finding the court noted that: (1) the motor vehicle accident was not related to the claimant’s work as a police officer, (2) she was not actively engaged in police work or responding to a problem, and (3) the hazards (presumptively the hazards of traffic or accidents) were not related to the job.
The Supreme Court in Stevens also specifically overruled Board of Trustees of the Policemen’s Pension Fund of Atlanta v. Christy, 246 Ga. 553, 272 S.E.2d 288 (1980) to the extent that case failed to look to whether the accident both “arose out of” and occurred “in the course of” employment. In Christy, the Supreme Court found the claimant’s motor vehicle accident while he was driving his police motorcycle to his assigned post compensable because the increased police presence and availability for duty provided a benefit to his employer. In Stevens, the Supreme Court noted that Christy’s accident occurred “in the course of” employment because he provided a benefit to the employer, but there was no indication of a causal connection to establish the accident “arose out of” Christy’s employment.
The State Board also examined the off-duty officer issue in an August 2014 ALJ decision (Board Claim Number 2013-004627). The ALJ followed Stevens and held that the claimant’s accident did not “arise out of” his employment. The claimant was allowed to drive his patrol car home pursuant to the City’s policy. The policy also allowed for use of the patrol car for off-duty jobs approved by the City. On his way to work for the City, the claimant was required to call the dispatcher to let them know he was starting duty. The claimant would then drive to the police department to “check in.” At the end of each shift, the claimant drove the patrol car home and called the dispatcher to end his duty. He was subject to being on call and performing other police duties while driving home. The claimant lived in another county from where he worked. The motor vehicle accident took place while the claimant was driving his patrol car home, but took place outside the City’s police jurisdiction. The ALJ distinguished Negrete on the basis that the motor vehicle accident in Negrete took place within the sheriff’s department jurisdiction, while this claimant’s accident took place outside the jurisdiction. The ALJ noted that the facts were similar to the facts in Stevens. Therefore, the ALJ found that while the accident occurred “in the course of” employment, it did not “arise out of” the claimant’s employment. Of note, the ALJ did not find that the type vehicle driven by the claimant (personal vs. law enforcement) was determinative on the compensability. While not binding precedent, the ALJ decision is instructive on how the State Board applies the decisions from Negrete and Stevens in a slightly different scenario.
Again, the compensability of injuries to law enforcement officers when “off-duty” is fact specific. An accident is not automatically compensable because the officer was driving a patrol car and wearing a uniform. Therefore, it is crucial for the employer to engage in a thorough investigation of the claim. While not an exhaustive list, when investigating the claim, consideration must be given to: (1) where the accident took place; (2) the rules and policies of the jurisdiction regarding performance of the job while “off-duty”; (3) how the motor vehicle accident “different” than a motor vehicle accident that happened to a non-law enforcement motorist; and (4) any benefit to the employer when the accident occurred.
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