Workers’ Compensation; Traveling Employee Presumption

Peters v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Cintas Corporation), 214 A.3d 738 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2019) (en banc), allocatur granted Jan. 8, 2020, appeal docket 1 MAP 2020

Jonathan Peters, a traveling uniform sales representative whose home and office base were in the Allentown area, was injured in a motor vehicle accident after attending a social event at a restaurant/pub at the end of his workday. The event was organized and paid for by his employer Cintas, which regularly held such events during sales blitzes. On the day in question, Peters made sales calls in the Tower City area, then drove to the after-work event in Allentown. On the way to the restaurant/pub, he passed the exit for his home and continued traveling to the restaurant pub. He suffered his injuries on the trip home from the event. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed the workers’ compensation judge’s denial of Peters’ claim petition, reasoning that even though the scope of employment is interpreted broadly for a traveling employee, Peters failed to prove that he was in the course and scope of employment at the time of his motor vehicle accident because the social event was voluntary. The en banc Commonwealth Court affirmed, with Judge Wojcik concurring in the result and Judge Cohn Jubelirer, joined by President Judge Leavitt, dissenting.

As the Commonwealth Court majority explained the applicable law:

When an employee is determined to be a traveling employee, he is entitled to a presumption that he is in the course and scope of employment when he is traveling to or from work. See id. “To rebut this presumption, [an e]mployer ha[s] to establish [employee’s] actions at the time of the accident were ‘so foreign to and removed from’ his usual employment that those actions constituted abandonment of employment.” Id. at 1285 (quoting Holler v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd. (Tri Wire Eng’g Solutions, Inc.), 104 A.3d 68, 71 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014)).

Slip Op. at 3-4.

Distinguishing cases in which traveling employees were compensated for injuries sustained while driving home even though they made stops for non-work events or errands after their work had been completed, the majority concluded that in those cases the employee was still within the scope of employment at the time of the injury because the injury occurred while the employee was homeward bound, whereas Peters had already passed his home and continued on to the social event:

 In examining the traveling employee presumption, it is clear the claimants in [cases where benefits were awarded] were granted benefits because “[t]he homeward trip was a necessary part of the business excursion.” … Moreover, “[t]he rule recognizes that a traveling employee is subjected to hazards [the employee] would otherwise have the option of avoiding, and as a result, the hazards of travel become the hazards of the employment.” … In the instant case, “[t]he homeward trip” had ended before Claimant traveled to the [social event]…. Claimant clearly had the option of avoiding any hazards simply by choosing to take the exit home as opposed to bypassing his exit to attend [the event]. Under the circumstances, Claimant’s travel from the [event] to his home cannot be considered in the course and scope of his employment. Accordingly, this Court holds that “based upon the WCJ’s findings of fact,” Claimant was not in the course and scope of his employment at the time of his motor vehicle accident. 

Slip Op. at 7.

The majority also affirmed the workers’ compensation judge’s finding that the after-work event was a social gathering that did not further the interests of the claimant’s employer.

In dissent, Judge Cohn Jubelirer rejected the majority’s attribution of significance to the fact that Peters had passed the exit for his home, thus completing his homeward journey, on his way to the after-work event, reasoning:

The Majority concludes that by passing the normal highway exit for his home and attending the non-mandatory event at the Tilted Kilt, Claimant “abandoned” his employment. Based upon our precedent involving traveling employees, I do not believe these facts legally constitute abandonment. The courts have found traveling employees were furthering the interests of their employers in situations where the claimants’ actions were more of a personal nature than Claimant’s actions here.

RCJ-4.

The dissent further rejected the notion that the court was bound by a factual finding that attendance at the event was not mandatory:

Contrary to the Majority’s view, it is not necessary to disturb the WCJ’s finding that attendance at the Tilted Kilt event was voluntary to determine that Claimant did not abandon his employment by attending the event. Just because attendance was not required does not mean the event was not work-related. There is no dispute that Sales Manager invited Claimant and other salespersons to the Tilted Kilt during the sales blitz, similar to other events Sales Manager has organized during past blitzes. Employer paid for the drinks and appetizers. While Claimant may have driven past the highway exit for his home in order to attend the event, he did so immediately at the end of his sales calls. Based on our precedent, I cannot conclude, as a matter of law, that driving by one’s exit home on a highway to attend an event organized and paid for by one’s employer is of such a “pronounced nature” to constitute abandonment of one’s employment or is “wholly foreign” to one’s employment.(Emphasis in original).

RCJ-8.

Judge Wojcik concurred in the result, rejecting the majority’s rationale but reasoning: “The workers’ compensation judge … found as fact that the event at the Tilted Kilt was voluntary, and I would affirm on that basis.” MHW-2.

The Supreme Court has granted allocatur to decide:

 (1) A traveling employee is entitled to a presumption that he is in the course and scope of employment when traveling to or from work unless his actions at the time of accident are so foreign and removed from his usual employment to constitute abandonment of employment. What constitutes an abandonment of employment such that a traveling employee is not entitled to benefits under the Pennsylvania Workers ‘ Compensation Act?

(2) A traveling employee is entitled to a presumption that he is in the course and scope of employment when traveling to or from work unless his actions at the time of the accident are so foreign and removed from his usual employment to constitute abandonment of employment. Consequently, is an injury compensable under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act when an employee is injured while returning home after attending a work sponsored social event?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.