Saturday, February 17, 2018

In the Course of Employment

In earlier posts concerning whether an auto accident occurring during the drive to a work comp medical appointment might be compensable, we touched on the concepts of "occurring in the course of employment" and "arising out of employment." On January 11, 2012, the Georgia Court of Appeals explained these terms in some detail in the case of Stokes v. Comets County Board of Education. Ms. Stokes claim concerned the arising out of part of her burden of proof. Ms. Stokes was the head custodian at an elementary school in Coweta County. As part of her job duties, she was required to unlock and open the gates to the school parking lot every morning. On May 3, 2010, Ms. Stokes drove her personal vehicle up to the front gate at 5:45 am in a heavy rain ready to open the gate. She parked her car on a steep incline, exited the car and walked up the hill towards the gate. Upon noticing her car rolling back down the hill, Ms. Stokes in her words "reacted instinctively" and ran to stop the car. When she did so, she tripped and fell with the result being that the car rolled over her foot. A few days later, Ms. Stokes' foot was amputated. Coweta County questioned the compensability of the injury, reasoning that Her action of running after her personal vehicle did not "arise out of" her employment and was instead personal. The State Board of Workers' Compensation decided that the act was personal. After the Superior Court affirmed the State Board (remember the any evidence rule) the Court of Appeals agreed to take a look. While bound by the any evidence rule as well, the Court of Appeals reversed, deciding that the Board used an incorrect legal theory and as a result did not consider all of the evidence in light of the correct legal theory. I know that sounds confusing, and it should. Questions of compensability contain not only issues of fact but also issues of law. The Court felt that the State Board considered the facts correctly but applied the wrong standard. Whereas the State Board considered Ms. Stokes as having deviated from her employment when she chased after her personal vehicle (an activity not specifically within they're job duties),the Court of Appeals considered those same facts as not constituting a deviation. The Court distinguished this situation from a voluntary departure from work duties to do as she pleased and pointed out that Ms. Stokes "responded instinctively and instantaneously to an unexpected and dangerous situation that arose directly out of the performance of her job duties." While Ms. Stokes could certainly have let her car roll away, the Court felt that to penalize Ms. Stokes for an instantaneous reaction would be unfair and in contrary to a similar decision issued in 1933. Bottom line: Ms. Stokes was where she was supposed to be (in the course of her employment) and doing what she was supposed to do in opening that gate (arising out of her employment) and a momentary sudden emergency did not act to change that.

"Skedsvold and White
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