Workers’ Compensation Appointments: Not a Detour Around the “Going-and-Coming Rule”

by Low, Ball & Lynch
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[author: Joseph Aguilar]

Kenneth Fields v. State of California
Court of Appeal, Fifth District (September 20, 2012)

Under the “going-and-coming” rule, employers are not generally liable under respondeat superior for torts committed by their employees when traveling to and from work. This case addresses whether an exception exists when an employee commits a tort while traveling to work from a medical appointment required pursuant to a workers’ compensation claim.

Linda Gadbois (“Gadbois”) worked at Avenal State Prison as a cook. She was injured on the job and received treatment through the prison’s workers’ compensation network. Gadbois informed her employer that she would need to take time off to attend a follow-up appointment on May 28, 2008, a day that she normally worked. After the appointment, Gadbois called the prison notifying her supervisor that she was on her way to work. Shortly thereafter, Gadbois was involved in a fatal vehicle accident involving Kenneth Fields (“Fields”), who was also injured. Pursuant to a death benefit policy at the prison, Gadbois was compensated her normal pay on the day of the accident. Fields filed suit against the estate of Gadbois and the State of California as Gadbois’ employer. At trial, after presentation of Fields’ case, the court entered a nonsuit in favor of the State. Fields appealed.

Fields contended that the State was liable under respondeat superior and that Gadbois was acting within the scope of her employment when she was driving back from her medical appointment related to her workers’ compensation claim. For an employer to be held liable under respondeat superior, an employee’s torts must be committed within the scope of their employment. Under the “going-and-coming” rule, an employee is not within the scope of their employment when driving to and from work.

The Appellate Court rejected Fields’ first argument that the “incidental benefits” rule applied when the State paid for Gadbois’ day of work. An exception exists to the “going-and-coming” rule when an employee’s commuting involves an incidental benefit to the employer. The court noted that payment for mileage or travel benefits can evidence that the employee’s actions benefited the employer. Fields attempted to analogize Gadbois’ receiving payment for the day of the accident to mileage and travel expenses. Here, however, the Court held that the death benefit policy was unrelated to Gadbois’ travel or work duties. In fact, the State’s death benefit policy would have paid Gadbois for the day even if she was on leave or vacation. Therefore, the court held that Fields failed to demonstrate a benefit to the State in Gadbois’ actions.

Next, Fields argued that Gadbois was running a special errand when attending her medical appointment related to her workers' compensation claim. The special errand exception to the “going-and-coming” rule states that an “employee is within the scope of his employment while coming from home or returning to it while on a special errand either as part of his regular duties or at a specific order or request of his employer.” The Court rejected this argument, stating that the medical appointment was not a condition of Gadbois’ employment. Gadbois needed to attend her workers’ compensation appointments as a statutory requirement of receiving compensation for her work-related injury, but not as a condition of performing her duties as a cook for the prison.

The Court also disagreed with Fields’ reference to a similar workers’ compensation decision in which an employee was found to be within the scope of his employment for an injury sustained while traveling to a doctor’s appointment for an earlier workers’ compensation injury. The court pointed out that public policy went in a different direction for workers’ compensation law on going-and-coming cases than it did in respondeat superior cases. In the former, public policy favored a finding that an employee was in the course and scope, as “social insurance” to protect the employee from occupational hazards, while in the latter, public policy was to limit an employer’s responsibility for the negligent acts of its employees.

The Court held that the prison did not require Gadbois to go to the workers’ compensation appointment on May 28, 2008; it did not require her to drive to the appointment; and driving was not part of Gadbois’ regular duties. Thus, it was not foreseeable that Gadbois would injure a third party in a vehicle accident as part of her work as a cook. Accordingly, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s entry of a non-suit in favor of the state.

COMMENT

The Appellate Court was unwilling to apply any known exceptions to the “going-and-coming” rule in the context of workers’ compensation appointments. Though this case presented facts that created the perception that the employee was attending a work-mandated appointment, the Court properly recognized that compliance with workers’ compensation rules are statutorily mandated and not a requirement arising from the employer.

For a copy of the complete decision see:

http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/F063128.PDF

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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