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Geaney: When Does the Special Mission Exception to the Premises Rule Apply?

  • State: New Jersey
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One of the most misunderstood rules in workers’ compensation is the so-called “special mission” exception to the premises rule, which is New Jersey’s successor to the better known “going-and-coming rule.”

John H. Geaney

John H. Geaney

The New Jersey premises rule says that one is at work when he or she arrives at the work premises. The main exception to that rule is the special mission exception.  Confusion abounds on this exception because few read the actual letter of the law.  Many think that the special mission applies when an employee has to drive somewhere out of the ordinary or work hours that are unusual. That may not be true at all.

Here is what the statute actually says: "When the employee is required by the employer to be away from the employer’s place of employment, the employee shall be deemed to be in the course of employment when the employee is engaged in the direct performance of duties assigned or directed by the employer.” This language comes from NJSA 34:15-36.

Consider some common scenarios:

  1. An employee works for a large food distributor, reporting every day to a satellite office in Cherry Hill, but once a year the employee must report to the employer’s headquarters in Jersey City for an annual review. The employee is injured returning from Jersey City to his home in a car accident. Special mission?
  2. An employee is approved for an educational seminar in Los Angeles, gets to the hotel, takes a warm, hot bath in the evening and slips and falls on the hotel bathroom floor, fracturing her femur. Special mission?
  3. The maintenance superintendent for a large rental complex is summoned at 9 p.m. to come back to work immediately because there is a power outage in the employer’s building where the superintendent works 9-5. Special mission?
  4. The head of human resources leaves work at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon but gets a phone call during her drive home and is told to come to work for a special meeting at 9 a.m. Saturday. Special mission?
  5. A defense lawyer leaves his home on Monday morning and travels to the Paterson workers’ compensation court, where the attorney drives every three weeks to handle a regular list. On the way, she is involved in a serious car accident. Special mission?

All of these scenarios have one thing in common: They are unusual assignments for the employee either to locations where the employee does not normally work or during hours when the employee does not normally work. But only two of these scenarios would meet the test of a special mission. If you guessed numbers 2 and 5, you are correct. 

In number 2, the employee is at a location away from the employer’s premises on an approved seminar when the slip and fall occurs. The employee’s presence in the hotel room is expected and necessary to complete the work assignment. 

In number 5, the defense lawyer is required by the employer to drive to a location away from the employer’s place of employment to perform court duties. The accident happens on the way to court.

But examples 1, 3 and 4 would not constitute a special mission. Why not? Number 1 is easy because the employee is reporting to the employer’s work site in Jersey City. It doesn’t matter that this is not where the employee normally works. The rule says it must be “away from the employer’s place of employment.” This is the company’s headquarters!  

The same outcome applies for numbers 3 and 4. Although the employees in numbers 3 and 4 may consider their assignments to be out of the ordinary and rather taxing (driving to work late at night or having to work on a Saturday), the test is not whether there is a deviation from the ordinary work schedule. The test is whether the employee is required by the employer to be away from the employer’s place of employment. They were both reporting to their normal work site. So for numbers 1, 3 and 4, the normal premises rule applies.

The second part of the special mission exception is easier to understand. When an accident occurs away from the employer’s place of employment, the employee must be engaged in the direct performance of work duties for the accident to be compensable.

So in the first example, if the employee at the seminar in Los Angeles is a baseball fan and decides to travel by herself to Chavez Ravine one night to watch the Dodgers play the Giants and falls in the stadium, that injury would not be covered because the game has nothing to do with the distant work assignment. 

What would be covered on a distant assignment or at a seminar? Courts have found that injuries getting meals at a hotel or walking to one’s room would certainly be covered.

Taking clients out to a different hotel for dinner or to a sporting event while at a seminar would certainly be covered. That makes sense, but not everything one does on an approved trip is covered, just as not everything that one does in the normal work environment is covered. For example, the fitness-obsessed employee who jumps rope during breaks and falls will not win a workers’ compensation case even if the injury occurs on the employer's premises.

John H. Geaney is an attorney, executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, a defense law firm in New Jersey. This post appears with permission from Geaney's New Jersey Workers' Comp Blog.

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