Benefits

Slippery Situation: Is Employee Entitled to Workers’ Comp Benefits for Parking Lot Fall?

The Arkansas Court of Appeals recently heard a claim that an employee injured her knee after falling in her employer’s parking.  Was the employee entitled to workers’ compensation benefits?

Slip

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Background

“Jennifer” was a correctional officer at the Varner unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC). On February 23, 2015, she commuted to work from Mississippi with a coworker. The inclement-weather policy was in effect, which meant that employees would receive their full salary even though they were given extra time to report to work.

Jennifer arrived late but within the time allotted under the inclement-weather policy. She was wearing her uniform because there were no changing rooms or lockers provided in the prison. As she stepped out of the car, she slipped on “black ice” and injured her left knee. Afterward, she proceeded from the parking lot to the checkpoint, walked through the gate, clocked in, and was assigned to her post.

Because the prison was short-staffed that day as a result of the weather, no one was available to help Jennifer fill out workers’ compensation forms. She worked a full shift and continued to work as scheduled until March 14. It was her understanding from her training that she was held responsible for her actions while wearing her uniform even if she wasn’t working at the time.

After a workers’ comp hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) at which only Jennifer testified, the ALJ found that because she was on her way to work when she injured herself in the parking lot, she wasn’t performing any work-related duties at the time of the injury. Accordingly, the ALJ denied her claim for benefits.

Jennifer appealed the ALJ’s decision, and on November 22, 2016, the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission affirmed and adopted the ALJ’s opinion as its own. Jennifer appealed.

Arkansas Court of Appeals

On appeal, the court explained that in order for an injury to be compensable, it must arise out of and in the course of employment. A compensable injury doesn’t include one incurred at a time when employment services aren’t being performed. The test of whether an employee is performing employment services when an injury occurs is whether she’s carrying out the employer’s purpose or advancing its interests, either directly or indirectly. Moreover, the court noted, whether an employee is acting within the course of employment depends on the particular facts and circumstances of each case.

In Jennifer’s case, she was traveling to work when she injured her knee. The court stated that the “going-and-coming rule” ordinarily precludes compensation to an employee whose injury occurs while she is traveling between her home and her job because employees who have fixed hours and places of work are generally not considered to be acting in the course of their employment while traveling to and from work.

Jennifer contended that substantial evidence contradicted the commission’s finding that she wasn’t performing employment services at the time of her injury. She argued that she was, at the very least, indirectly benefiting her employer because she was going to work despite the inclement weather, was wearing her uniform, was paid for her entire shift, and could have been required to assist with transported prisoners in the parking lot even though she wasn’t yet clocked in.

In support of her argument, Jennifer cited three cases that the court thought merited discussion. However, according to the court, the cases she cited were distinguishable from the facts of her case.

In two of the cases, the court concluded, the facts went “beyond the situation in which an employee is injured while walking to or from his vehicle in the parking lot before or after work.” In the first case—Caffey v. Sanyo Manufacturing Corp.—the employee had already proceeded through required guard shacks, and in the second case—Continental Construction Co. v. Nabors—the employee had already passed through the required gate check. The court opined that the employees in these cases were thereby advancing their employers’ interests.

By contrast, Jennifer hadn’t entered through a required guard shack or gate check but merely slipped when she was exiting the car. Furthermore, unlike the employee in the third case—North Little Rock School District v. Lybarger—Jennifer wasn’t traveling between places at the direction of her employer and injured on the employer’s premises while en route.

Jennifer additionally argued that she was performing employment services because she was wearing her uniform. However, her argument lacked merit because the court had rejected a similar argument in Linton v. Arkansas Department of Correction. Moreover, the court noted, although she argued that she would have performed a job-related duty in the parking lot if she had been asked, she admitted that she wasn’t performing any kind of job duty in the parking lot at the time of her injury nor had she ever been asked to do so.

The court concluded that the commission’s decision that Jennifer wasn’t entitled to compensation for her injury was supported by substantial evidence.

Bottom Line

Employees are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits only for injuries incurred while performing employment services for their employers. While each case is analyzed on its own facts, generally, an employee isn’t considered to be performing employment services during travel to and from work, including travel in the employer’s parking lot.

Steve Jones is an attorney Jack Nelson Jones & Bryant, P.A and an editor of the Arkansas Employment Law Letter. He can be reached at sjones@jacknelsonjones.com.