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Geaney: Court Holds Out-of-State Accident Compensable

  • National

Petitioner Mario Pozadas was injured on Oct. 14, 2016. He was the owner of the respondent Capital Iron Associates LLC, which specialized in fabricating and installing welding materials. 

John H. Geaney

John H. Geaney

Earlier in the day, he was working on a home renovation project in Hightstown, New Jersey. Pozadas drove a flatbed truck carrying several workers to the site. At around 3 p.m., he got a call from a client about doing a project at a funeral home in the same town. He met with his client at a deli to discuss the job. Then he dropped off his hourly workers and the flatbed truck at his shop in Trenton.

Petitioner testified that he planned next to travel back to Hightstown to prepare an estimate that afternoon for the funeral home. He further said that he decided to use a friend’s motorcycle to travel back to Hightstown. He chose not to drive directly to the funeral home.

Because it was a nice day, he decided to drive four miles west from Trenton into Pennsylvania on his friend’s motorcycle. He exited south on the Route 13 jughandle in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, intending to proceed to Hightstown when the accident occurred, resulting in very serious injuries.

The court noted that a direct route from the shop to the funeral home was approximately 15 miles, but the longer route via Pennsylvania would have been approximately 26 miles.

Hartford Insurance denied the claim and argued that petitioner was not in the direct performance of duties at the time of his injury because he had driven west into Pennsylvania instead of driving east to Hightstown. Respondent argued that the drive to Pennsylvania constituted a deviation from employment. The court noted that as the owner, petitioner could choose whatever vehicle he wanted to use and could choose the route he wanted to take. 

The judge of compensation ruled for petitioner and held that the accident occurred in the course of employment, and the Appellate Division affirmed, noting that this was not a case of someone who had stopped on the way to perform a personal errand and then got hurt. 

The court also noted that the judge made a finding that petitioner was credible in stating that he intended to cross back into New Jersey and drive directly to Hightstown.

The court held that petitioner was engaged in the direct performance of work duties and relied on NJSA 34:15-36, which defines the scope of employment:

Employment shall be deemed to commence when an employee arrives at the employer’s place of employment to report for work and shall terminate when the employee leaves the employer’s place of employment, excluding areas not under the control of the employer; provided, however, 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.

The decision in Pozadas v. Capital Iron Associates LLC is interesting for a number of reasons. The first question is whether the result would have been different if the case had been viewed as a recreational activity claim under NJSA 34:15-7. Section 7 deals with recreational and social activity claims. The Appellate Court opinion focused on the premises rule under NJSA 34:15-36. 

There is no discussion in the decision about whether the petitioner was engaged in a recreational activity while driving the motorcycle in Pennsylvania. He said he chose to go west because it was a nice day to drive the motorcycle even though it lengthened the trip by 11 miles. NJSA 34:15-7 provides that recreational activities are not compensable unless they are a regular incident of employment and promote a benefit to the employer beyond improvement of health and morale.   

The opinion also raises another interesting question: What would have happened if the petitioner were an employee, rather than the owner? There is little doubt that if an employee had been directed to drive to Hightstown for work purposes but instead decided to drive west four miles into Pennsylvania, the respondent’s argument would have been successful on deviation from employment.

A similar issue was raised in another unpublished case, Mackoff v. New Brunswick Saw Services. In that case, the employee had a business meeting in West Caldwell and said he intended to drive to the New Brunswick office of his company. However, he was hungry and decided to have lunch in Kenilworth. He said he went to the hot dog restaurant because he loved their hot dogs and it was nostalgic for him. His accident was held not compensable because the judge of compensation found that the "primary purpose for driving to the hot dog place was personal and not work-related.”

Hartford Insurance also denied petitioner’s claim because of a lack of workers’ compensation coverage on the date of the accident. The policy had very recently expired when the motorcycle accident occurred. The opinion indicates, however, that the carrier was not able to produce witnesses from the broker who would have been needed to prove the employer had notice of cancellation. 

John H. Geaney is an attorney, shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation Group in New Jersey. This post appears with permission from Geaney's New Jersey Workers' Comp Blog.

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