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Geaney: The Little Known 'Authorized Vehicle Rule' in Workers' Compensation

  • State: New Jersey
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I had the pleasure of speaking on Law Day in Plainfield Workers’ Compensation Court on May 1 and wanted to share with readers part of the discussion in our session, namely that of the New Jersey authorized vehicle rule contained in NJSA 34:15-36. 

John H. Geaney

John H. Geaney

This is one of the most unknown but significant rules about when work starts and when work ends. Practitioners, adjusters and employers are far more aware of the premises rule, the special mission rule and the paid travel time rule than they are of the authorized vehicle rule.

Since the major overhaul of the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act in 1979, there have only been two significant published decisions that addressed in any detail the authorized vehicle rule, both cases involving the New Jersey Supreme Court. The first was in 1992 in the case of Zelasko v. Refrigerated Express. The case involved a truck driver who owned his tractor and trailer. Because his home community prohibited parking a trailer overnight, he had to park in a neighboring town in a friend’s yard.

On April 12, 1990, Mr. Zelasko made a delivery to Supermarkets General in Woodbridge. He then drove to the terminal of his employer, Refrigerated Express, in Old Bridge to unload some pallets. After that, he started to drive to the neighboring town where he parked his trailer. On the way, he heard some rattling noises from the remaining pallets and became concerned about a problem. He pulled off the road and stopped the truck. He climbed onto the trailer to check the pallets but then fell, suffering injuries.

The petitioner argued that his injury was covered under the authorized vehicle rule. The court focused on the following language of the statute, which actually blends into one phrase two different rules (travel time and the authorized vehicle rule):  

… But the employment of employee paid travel time by an employer for time spent traveling to and from a job site or of any employee who utilizes an employer-authorized vehicle should commence and terminate with the time spent traveling to and from a job site or the authorized operation of a vehicle on business authorized by the employer.

The court rejected petitioner’s claim because it concluded that he had concluded his day when he returned to his employer’s place of employment to drop off pallets. There was a lengthy dissent from Justice Handler, who argued that petitioner’s day was not finished because he still had to drive to a neighboring town, unhook the trailer and safely secure its contents.

Thirty-one years later, the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2023 delivered a more detailed opinion on the authorized vehicle rule in Keim v. Above All Termite & Pest Control. The facts were unusual in this case.

The petitioner was a pest control technician who was given a company vehicle to transport pesticides and chemicals needed for work. His day generally began by checking his iPad for assignments and then leaving home to go to the client's location for pest control. However, his employer required all technicians to refill their pesticides and chemicals at the employer’s location in Monmouth County. There was a limit to how much pesticide the technicians could keep in their trucks due to concerns about spoilage of the chemicals and possible theft. Technicians would have to make sure they had just enough in their vehicles to meet the needs of the jobs each day. 

On the date of petitioner’s accident, he was driving to the employer’s location to refill the supplies in his truck. Petitioner had concluded that he did not have sufficient supplies to perform his scheduled assignments. He was involved in a car accident on the way to his employer’s location, with serious injuries. The employer argued that petitioner was on his way to work and therefore, the premises rule applied. 

The judge of compensation dismissed the case. Petitioner appealed and the appellate division reversed in his favor. The Supreme Court then affirmed in favor of petitioner.

The court did not hold that the drive to work was a special mission, partly because it had already decided that this was an authorized vehicle rule case and perhaps partly because the statute says a special mission must involve a commute away from the employer’s place of employment. The court found that petitioner was using an authorized vehicle when the accident occurred, on business authorized by the employer and with authorization from his employer.

The court said: 

Above All provided an authorized vehicle for operation by Keim. Keim’s operation of that vehicle to the shop on the morning of the car accident was solely for business expressly identified and authorized by Above All, namely, to replenish supplies. The entire arrangement, both as to the vehicle’s location and the need to replenish supplies, reflected a business decision expressly designed by the employer to further the employer’s interests in safeguarding and maintaining the quality of its supplies and in minimizing travel time for employees, thus facilitating a robust appointment schedule.

Most employees who use their cars for business do not have company cars: lawyers, accountants, salespersons, real estate agents, certain nurses and others. Does the authorized vehicle rule require that the company own the vehicle? The court said no.  The rule is not limited to just employer-provided vehicles. It could apply to a vehicle owned by the employee. The court did not go into further details about how a personally owned vehicle will be deemed an authorized vehicle, but the quote in the above paragraph seems to focus future analysis on whether the actions of the employee are furthering the employer’s business interests.

Does this case suggest that the drive to work is now compensable? The court addressed this issue: 

However, the "authorized vehicle rule" does not apply every time an employee is driving a vehicle authorized by an employer. And importantly, the "authorized vehicle rule" does not categorically apply when an employee is merely commuting to work in either an authorized personal or work vehicle.

Drives from home to work and back from work to home will almost always be considered not covered under workers’ compensation.

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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