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Jumpp v. City of Ventnor

177 N.J. 470, 828 A.2d 905 (2003)

WORKERS COMPENSATION—A worker is not eligible for workers compensation coverage of an injury incurred while running personal errands even though the worker’s duties require him or her to be continually in transit without a fixed time for meals or breaks.

A municipal pumping station operator used a municipal-owned vehicle to travel to each work site. He was continually in transit and had no set time for lunch or a coffee break. Therefore, “without objection from his direct supervisor, he was permitted to make brief stops at local establishments for food and beverages or to use the restroom.” He “also stopped each day to retrieve his personal mail from a local post office located on the route to one of his job sites, a habit that his supervisor knew about and allowed.” One day, while returning from the post office after checking his personal mail, he slipped and fell on a driveway and was severely injured. While in the hospital, his supervisor mentioned that there should be no problem with workers’ compensation. The municipality disputed the compensability of the injuries. A trial was held. The lower court dismissed the claim, holding that even though the worker “was authorized to make a post office stop and that it was only a minor deviation of his responsibilities, [his] injuries were not compensable because he was engaged in a personal errand and not the direct performance of duties assigned or required by his employer.” The Appellate Division confirmed. The matter was further appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

“Generally there must be a finding that an off-premises employee was performing his or her work responsibilities at the time of the injury for the injury to be compensable under the Workers’ Compensation Act. Although minor deviations from the employee’s prescribed responsibilities survived the 1979 amendment to the statute, on the undisputed facts [the Supreme Court held that the worker was] not entitled to benefits.” The definition of employment in the Act was amended in 1979 in a package that was “designed to provide genuine reform and meaningful cost containment for employers from unjustified workers’ compensation costs… . ...[i]n part, the legislature sought to reduce costs by sharply curtailing compensability for all off-premises accidents.” Prior to 1979, case law developed a “going and coming” or “premises” rule. One of the exceptions included a “‘minor deviation rule,’ which considered personal habits or errands, such as smoking or making a phone call, to be in the course of employment even though, unlike the indispensable human functions of eating and using the lavatory, employees need not engage in such activities to perform their work duties adequately.” Under the Act, “[o]n-premises employees are not within the scope of employment until they arrive at the employer’s place of business, and they shed that status when they depart.” Off-premises employees are “to be compensated only for accidents occurring in the direct performance of their duties.” The minor deviation rule was not eliminated by a 1979 amendment. “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 positions as well as coffee and lunch breaks. Those minor deviations are different in kind from shopping excursions during the 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.” It doesn’t matter if a supervisor allows the employee to perform a personal errand. Here, the Court believed that the injured worker’s “deviation was no different from the office worker who takes an afternoon break and crosses the street to pick up his personal mail at the local post office. Neither deviation would be compensable.”

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