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Sager v. O.A. Peterson Construction, Co.

182 N.J. 156, 862 A.2d 1119 (2004)

WORKERS COMPENSATION — When an employer compels an employee’s participation in an activity generally viewed as recreational or social in nature, such as leaving the workplace for a meal, the employer then renders the activity work-related as a matter of law.

On September 11, 2001, when the terrorist attacks occurred, an employee was working at a construction site in New York. Because the attacks caused the emergency closing of all bridges and tunnels between New York and New Jersey, the employee and several co-workers were unable to return to their homes in New Jersey at the end of the day. Due to their anxiety over the attacks, none of the employees ate during their lunch break. At around 3:00 p.m., the employee and his co-workers left the site to have an early dinner. They drove a van owned and operated by one of the co-workers a few miles to a local diner. While driving back to the job site, the van was involved in an accident, seriously injuring the employee. The employee filed a Claim Petition with the New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation. At the trial, the on-site supervisor testified that it was his decision that everyone leave early to get something to eat and then return to continue working, and that the workers would be paid overtime. The site’s project manager testified that the supervisor was in charge when he, himself, was not on site and that the supervision was authorized to allow employees to work overtime.

The compensation court decided that the employee’s claim was compensable, concluding that he was on a “special mission” at the time of the accident. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the employee, when injured, was neither required by his employer to be away from his place of employment nor was he engaged in the direct performance of his employment duties.

The Supreme Court reversed, again holding that the employee’s injuries were compensable because the on-site supervisor’s credible testimony supported the conclusion that the employee was acting under the direction of his employer when the accident occurred. When an employer compels an employee’s participation in an activity generally viewed as recreational or social in nature, the employer thereby renders that activity work-related as a matter of law. Such compulsion, standing alone, brings an activity that is otherwise unrelated to work within the scope of employment.

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