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Cooper v. Barnickel Enterprises, Inc.

411 N.J. Super. 343, 988 A.2d 38 (App. Div. 2010)

WORKERS COMPENSATION — Off-premises employees enjoy the same ability to deal with certain basic needs enjoyed by on-premises employees such as coffee and lunch breaks and if it is reasonable for an employee to travel a short distance to enjoy a coffee break and then the employee is injured during that travel, such injury is compensable under the Workers Compensation Act.

An employee was authorized to use a company truck to drive to and from home and job sites. One day, he went to his union hall to discuss plans for a new job with a union instructor. The employee discovered that the instructor was teaching a class and would not be available until forty-five minutes later. He decided to take a coffee break and return to the union hall a short while later. Believing there was no coffee available at the union hall, hr drove about five miles to buy coffee. While en route, he was injured in an auto accident. The employee applied for disability coverage pursuant to the Workers Compensation Act (Act).

The lower court found that the employee was taking his regular paid coffee break when he went to get some coffee while waiting for the instructor. The court distinguished this case from Jump v. City of Ventnor, wherein that court found involved “a purely personal errand,” because the petitioner there had left his vehicle to retrieve his personal mail during business hours. In the instant case, the lower court concluded that the employee had engaged in “exactly the kind of brief activity which[,] if embarked by an inside employee working under set time and place limitations, would be compensable under the personal comfort doctrine.” Alternatively, the court found that the employee was “on a special mission that was authorized by his employer so that he would be prepared for his project meeting the following work day.” When the lower court awarded the employee a “100% disability” for injuries suffered, his employer challenged the ruling, asserting that the accident had not arisen “during the course of” employment.

The Appellate Division affirmed, relying on Jump, where “employees who are where they are supposed to be, doing what they are supposed to be doing, are within the course of employment whether on- or off-premises, except when they are commuting.” It also ruled that the Jump Court explained that the 1979 amendments to the Act were designed to narrow the minor deviation rule. In doing so, it noted that the Jump court had held that the rule allowing compensation for injuries occurring in a minor deviation from employment was not eliminated by the 1979 amendments to the Act. Here, the Court held that the test of whether a minor deviation is compensable “depends on whether that employee has embarked on a personal errand that would be compensable if carried out by an on-premises employee.” It also agreed with the Jump Court that “off-premises employees enjoy the same ability to deal with certain basic needs enjoyed by on-premises employees such as phone calls to babysitters and physicians as well as coffee and lunch breaks.” The Court pointed out that, although the line was difficult to draw, those minor deviations were different in kind from shopping excursions during lunch hour or a visit to a travel agent to plan a vacation, even when the agent works in the same building as the employee seeking benefits. Here, it found that the lower court had made comprehensive findings based on credibility determinations and concluded that the employee was an off-site worker who, facing an extended wait to consult with an expert concerning a work-related issue, was injured while driving for a cup of coffee. In addition, the Court determined that the distance to the coffee shop from the employee’s off-site jobsite was reasonable given the rural nature of the community and the time the employee had to wait to seek the counsel he sought.


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