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Valdez v. Tri-State Furniture

374 N.J. Super. 223, 863 A.2d 1123 (App. Div. 2005)

WORKERS COMPENSATION—Although an injured worker’s purely personal activity would not normally be something that arose out his or her employment, when the activity is done with the consent and participation of a supervisor who appears to have been given responsibility over the worker and workplace, the activity can satisfy the “arising out of employment” test.

An employee was responsible for uncrating, unwrapping, repairing, and rewrapping furniture. His employer maintained a workspace within a warehouse that it shared with two other companies. The employee also worked overtime, helping a supervisor build an office within the warehouse. On the day in question, the employee began working as a wrapper at the usual time and later joined the supervisor in building the office. They continued to work after the warehouse closed and both drove forklifts all around the warehouse, even though neither of them had used a forklift before. They may have been “joyriding.” The forklifts were under the control of one of the other companies occupying the warehouse. When the employee tried to park the forklift, if fell onto his leg and injured him. He then filed a workers’ compensation claim.

The employer’s operations manager testified that the employees were told about an unwritten policy that prohibited them from using the forklifts. According to the manager, only one specific employee was authorized to use them. He also testified to another unwritten policy prohibited the employees from leaving the employer’s workspace, but admitted that no penalty had ever been imposed for violating that policy. According to the manager, the employer’s materials were stored throughout the warehouse. In response, the employee claimed that he had intended to use the forklift to move sheetrock, and that he had not been told not to use the forklifts. He claimed to have heard about other employees using them, and that he had seen one employee use the forklift the very day of his accident.

The compensation judge rejected the employee’s testimony that he had used the forklift to move sheetrock. Instead, she found that the employee had engaged in a purely personal activity and not as part of his job. On that basis, she dismissed the employee’s claim. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that the injury occurred “in the course of” and “arose out of” the employee’s employment.

Injuries occurring in an area controlled by an employer generally satisfy the “in the course of” requirement. An employer’s use of a common area to conduct its business is sufficient to establish control under the New Jersey Compensation Act. Even though the employer argued that the accident occurred outside of its own workspace and that the forklifts were mainly used by the other companies in the warehouse, the Court noted that the employee was injured while being paid and in the presence of his supervisor. Therefore, it concluded that the injury occurred “in the course of” his employment.

To satisfy the “arose out of” requirement, the employee argued that he was not deviating from his job when he was injured and that, even if he was acting out of curiosity, his injury was compensable because his conduct was merely a momentary, impulsive act. The “arose out of” test asks whether it is more probable that the injury in question would have occurred during employment than somewhere else. Under this test, injuries that result from a purely personal activity are not compensable.

The Court first noted that the employee’s stated goal of using the forklift to increase his value to his employer was directly related to his employment. Furthermore, the employee had used the forklift with the supervisor’s consent and involvement. Although not all accidents arising from an employee’s interaction with a supervisor are compensable, an employer’s willingness to leave a relatively new employee alone with the supervisor indicated the supervisor’s level of authority. Thus, the Court concluded that the employee’s operation of the forklift was reasonable in light of the supervisor’s involvement and the lack of a written policy forbidding it. The employee had the opportunity to use the forklift only because of his job; the accident occurred while he was performing the same activity as his supervisor; and he was being paid at the time of the accident. For those reasons, the Court concluded that the injury satisfied the “arose out of” requirement. Therefore, since it held that the injury satisfied both the “in the course of” and the “arose out of” requirements of New Jersey’s Workers Compensation Act, the Court reversed the compensation judge’s decision, and held that the injury was compensable.

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