Supreme Court finds injury arose in the course and scope of employment after Employee quit job.
| December 1, 2017

In a case of first impression, the Tennessee Supreme Court Special Workers Compensation Panel (“Panel”) in Duck v. Cox Oil Co.,  2017 Tenn. LEXIS 734 (June 19, 2017), found that Employee’ injury, which occurred immediately after she announced that she was quitting, arose in the course and scope of her employment.

Procedurally, after the claim was denied, the Employee filed a Request for Expedited Hearing regarding medical benefits. She asked for a ruling based on a review of the file without an evidentiary hearing, as the parties did not contest the facts of the case. The Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims heard the case based solely on the available affidavits and records. The issue presented was whether Employee was likely to prevail at trial on the merits of her assertion that her injury occurred in the course and scope of her employment. Employer contended that Employee had not sustained a compensable work-related injury because she terminated her employment prior to her fall. The trial court adopted Employee’ position that she remained in the course and scope of her employment for a reasonable period of time to exit the premises at the end of her employment. The trial court then issued an expedited order granting Employee’ request for medical benefits.

Thereafter, Employer filed an interlocutory appeal to the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board. The Appeals Board reversed the decision, concluding that the injury did not arise from the employment because the employment relationship ended before the Employee fell. The claim was remanded for further proceedings. Once the case was back in the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims, Employer filed a motion for summary judgment. The motion contended that Employee’ resignation, immediately prior to her fall, terminated the employment relationship and rendered her injury non-compensable. Finding no disputed material facts, the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims granted Employer’ summary judgment motion based on the legal conclusion of the Appeals Board that there was no employment relationship by the time the alleged injury occurred.

The relevant facts of this claim were undisputed. Employee worked as a clerk at a convenience store operated by Cox Oil Company, the Employer. On March 22, 2015, Employee clocked in for work at 2 p.m. Employee’s immediate supervisor asked Employee to work the main cash register while he finished other work. Employee told the supervisor she did not want to work the cash register or clean the ice cream freezer. Employee then began gathering her belongings and told the Employer she was quitting. As Employee was leaving, she immediately slipped and fell in a puddle of water on the floor; the puddle was next to the ice cream freezer that she had just refused to clean. Employee later claimed that, right away, she felt pain in her low back, her left arm and shoulder, and in the back of her head. Employee never reported to work again after this incident.

As previously noted, the issue for Panel review was whether Employee’ injury, which occurred immediately after she announced that she was quitting, arose in the course and scope of her employment.

Even though there were no Tennessee cases that addressed the precise issue in this case, the Panel undertook a review of case law involving injuries to current employees that occurred outside of their fixed time and place for work. The Panel discussed Lollar v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 767 S.W.2d 143 (Tenn. 1989), where the Tennessee Supreme Court rejected its previous general rule that injuries sustained by an employee en route to or from work were not compensable and instead adopted the majority rule in holding that “a worker who is on the employer’ premises coming to or going from the actual work place is acting in the course of employment.” The Panel also looked at Carter v. Volunteer Apparel, Inc., 833 S.W.2d 492 (Tenn. 1992). In that case, the Supreme Court found compensable an employee’ injury that occurred in a slip-and-fall accident in the employer’ break room nearly an hour before her shift began. The Court in Carter stated: “It is obvious that ‘ the course of employment’ for employees having a fixed time and place to work, embraces a reasonable interval before and after official working hours while the employee is on the premises engaged in preparatory or incidental acts.”

The Panel also looked outside of Tennessee to a case involving the Utah workers’ compensation statutes. The Panel cited to a 1928 case from the United States Supreme Court which discussed the general principle that employment includes the time necessary to pass to and from the workplace. Bountiful Brick Co. v. Giles, 276 U.S. 154, 158 (1928).

In looking at other jurisdictions that have addressed the issue at hand, the Panel found the majority rule was that an injury sustained by a terminated employee while arriving and leaving the employer’ premises was compensable. These jurisdictions generally held that, because leaving the workplace is incidental to the employment relationship, a terminated employee who “sustains injuries while leaving the premises within a reasonable time after termination” of the employment is deemed to have suffered a compensable injury. Price v. R & A Sales, 773 N.E.2d 873, 876-77 (Ind. Ct. App. 2002); see also Ventura v. Albertson’ Inc., 856 P.2d 35, 38 (Colo. App. 1992).

Other states have “extend[ed] workers’ compensation benefits to employees who sustain injuries while leaving or returning to their employers’ premises to wind up their affairs within a reasonable time after termination.” Case of Larocque, 582 N.E.2d at 960; see Cook v. AFC Enters., Inc., 826 So. 2d 174, 178 (Ala. 2002) (terminated employee’ injuries were compensable because “her employment included a ‘ time, space, and opportunity’ for her to leave the premises before the Workers’ Compensation Act was rendered inapplicable”). See, e.g., Johnson v. Safreed, 273 S.W.2d 545, 547 (Ark. 1954) (terminated employee’ injuries were compensable because “period between discharge and injury must be somewhat longer than the minute, or less, involved in the instant case”).

Addressing the competing position – the immediate termination approach – the Panel discussed the cases under which workers’ compensation coverage terminates immediately when an employee quits or is fired. See, e.g., Johnson v. City of Albia, 212 N.W. 419, 420, 423 (Iowa 1927) (compensation denied to an employee who returned to the job site the day after quitting work to retrieve his tools and was injured while helping his successor operate equipment); Fanders v. Riverside Resort & Casino, Inc., 245 P.3d 1159, 1162 (Nev. 2010) (once an employee quits or is fired, an injury sustained while leaving the job site generally is not in the course of employment).

The immediate termination approach has its exceptions, such as when the employee is subject to hazards inherent in the employment while leaving the workplace. See, e.g., Sanders v. Texas Employers Ins. Ass’, 775 S.W.2d 762, 763-64 (Tex. App. 1989) (once employee has resigned or is fired, an injury incurred at the job site or while leaving the job site is not an injury sustained in the course of employment when termination occurs in a “place of safety and the employee is not subject to inherent hazards arising from the employment itself”); Pederson & Voechting v. Kromrey, 231 N.W. 267, 268-69 (Wis. 1930) (employment relationship terminates when the employee quits work or upon his discharge by the employer, but employee may be covered if he is injured “while rendering service under a contract of hire or while going to and from his employment in the ordinary and usual way while on the premises of his employer”).

Discounting the minority immediate termination approach, the Panel adopted the majority approach and held “that an employee whose employment is terminated remains covered by the Workers’ Compensation statutes for a reasonable period of time for the employee to effectuate the termination of employment, such as by gathering belongings and exiting the workplace.”  The Panel declined to address “the outer limits of the reasonable interval during which the employment relationship persists after an employee quits or is fired” but simply stated it was not exceeded in Duck v Cox Oil case. The Panel held the Employee remained employed at the time the injury and that she was still employed for purposes of the workers’ compensation statutes.

It should be noted that the material facts of this claim were not disputed. Given that this decision arose out of the trial court’ grant of summary judgment, the Panel’s review was de novo with no presumption of correctness. Thus, while this decision appears to favor Employees, the Employer is not left without defense opportunities.  When the claim facts are in dispute, this would potentially provide avenues to distinguish from the Duck v Cox Oil case. Additionally, the Panel in Duck v Cox Oil case declined to specify the “limits of the reasonable interval during which the employment relationship persists.” Accordingly, the specific facts and circumstances of each claim would be highly relevant in analyzing such “reasonableness,” and in turn, the compensability of the claim.

Should you need any further information or have any questions on this case, please feel free to contact Connor Sestak with Morgan & Akins.

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