Miller v. Shopright: When Injuries Caused at Work are Compensable

Submitted by New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

Injuries caused at work are compensable if such activities must be (1) a regular incident of employment and (2) produce a benefit to the employer beyond improvement in employee health and morale.

Miller v. Shopright:  Court allowed petitioner to pursue his personal injury action after they dismiss his workers compensation case finding petitioner was not in the scope of his employment at the time of his injury.   Factually, Miller was employed by respondent Saker Shoprite as a customer service and bookkeeping associate. His work shift at the supermarket was typically 4:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. The supermarket allowed them to come to the store after 10:00 a.m. on Fridays to cash their weekly paychecks at the courtesy desk. Alternatively, employees could take their paychecks home with them, or arrange for the direct deposit of their wages into their bank accounts.  Shortly after 10:00 a.m. on Friday, January 29, 2010, petitioner arrived at the store in order to pick up his paycheck. As already noted, he was wearing what appeared to a fellow worker to be his pajamas, and he was not scheduled to begin his shift until hours later in the afternoon. A person who had given him a ride to the store was apparently waiting for him outside.  Petitioner obtained his paycheck at the courtesy desk and immediately cashed it. He used part of the money to buy a lottery ticket for a co-worker who was then working a register in the checkout area as a cashier. Petitioner walked over to the co-worker, handed her the ticket, turned away from the register, and began heading toward the store exit. At this point, petitioner slipped on a white granular substance that may have been salt or sugar. He lost his balance and fell to the floor. He quickly arose and noticed his “slip print” in the white substance on the floor. Petitioner claims that he reported his accident to a bookkeeper on duty. He did not seek immediate medical attention, and left the store fifteen minutes later. He subsequently filled out an incident report.  According to petitioner, following the accident, his left knee swelled and became painful. He felt as if he had pulled a muscle in his groin or thigh, and his back started to hurt. Nevertheless, petitioner did not seek any medical treatment for over a month. An MRI revealed that he had injured the medial meniscus of his knee. He wore a knee brace for a period of time and took over-the-counter pain medications. Petitioner ultimately filed a petition for workers’ compensation benefits.

For example, in Mule v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., 356 N.J. Super. 389, 397 (App. Div. 2003), we found no causal connection where an employee was injured in a car accident after returning to his workplace after hours to use the company’s gym shower. Ibid. Adopting the reasoning of the trial court, this court held as such because “[the employee] was not there for the benefit of the employer” rather the employee “was there for his own personal benefit” and the “fact that the facilities were available, that the . . . shower was there and . . . he was an employee there, [did] not mean that he was there for the benefit of the employer or that his actions were for the benefit of the employer.” Ibid. (third alteration added). Accordingly, this court found the injury did not “trigger coverage under workers’ compensation.” Ibid.  Furthermore, the Supreme Court did not find a compensable injury where an employee, during an unpaid lunch break on the employer’s premises, lit a cigarette that caused her hair to catch on fire. Coleman, supra, 105 N.J. at 294-95. The Court found that, while this incident surely happened in the employee’s course of employment (i.e., it occurred during a lunch hour and smoking, although a personal activity, is a foreseeable activity), it did not arise out of the employee’s employment. Ibid. This is because the lunchroom did not play any role in the plaintiff’s injury and “[n]o employment-related instrumentality . . . influenced the occurrence itself or the nature and extent of the resultant injury.” Id. at 294. Additionally, this court held that an employee’s injury was not compensable when she was injured while receiving a self- requested facial after she was told to leave and not work her scheduled shift due to lack of customers. Sparrow v. La Cachet, Inc., 305 N.J. Super. 301, 303, 306-07 (App. Div. 1997). This court found that the injury did not arise out of the employee’s employment because the facial was a purely personal proclivity of the plaintiff, as her employer did not encourage it. Id. at 306-07. The employee had to ask permission to receive the facial, and it served purely the plaintiff’s interests—not the employer’s. Id. at 307. Accordingly, this court did not find the requisite work connection. Ibid.

Similarly, this court found that an injury sustained by an employee after slipping on a puddle of water left on the floor while shopping in the employer’s store immediately following the conclusion of her scheduled shift was not compensable. Zahner v. Pathmark Stores, Inc., 321 N.J. Super. 471, 481 (App. Div. 1999). This court held that the injury did not arise out of the employee’s employment because, like in Sparrow, the shopping the employee partook in stemmed from a purely personal proclivity—it “did not arise ‘out of’ a risk connected with her job as a cashier” but, rather, it was a “personal risk” resulting from her decision to “remain on her employer’s premises to food shop for her mother.” Ibid. Consequently, the required work connection was absent. Ibid.

Injuries “sustained through recreational or social activities are not compensable, unless such activities (1) are a regular incident of employment and (2) produce a benefit to the employer beyond improvement in employee health and morale.”  Sarzillo v. Turner Constr. Co., 101 N.J. 114, 119 (1985). For example, in Sarzillo, the Court held that an injury sustained by an employee playing a game similar to tennis with fellow employees during his on-location lunch break was not compensable. Id. at 121-23. The Court reasoned that it was not a regular incident of employment because the employee chose to play the game on his own and the employer “did not contribute to, participate in, or encourage the activity, much less compel employees to engage in it,” though it did not object to it. Id. at 121. Furthermore, the Court found that no benefit was conferred on the employer by this activity, thus clearly failing on the second prong of the analysis.

This fundamental analysis is the first question every prospective petitioner must ask in order to determine if s/he has a viable compensation claim against their employer.  How is their injury related to their employment and their actions which caused the injury a benefit to the employer?  A vast majority of all workers compensation claims easy satisfy this requirement due to the exact causal relationships between work and the claimed injury.  Cases such as this represent a small fraction of all workers compensation claims as a result.

 

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