Safety and OSHA News

Injured while driving to get coffee: Worker files for comp

An employee used a company vehicle, which he was allowed to drive, to get coffee and suffered a serious accident. He applied for workers’ comp benefits. Did he receive them?

Jesse Cooper was a master plumber and foreman for Barnickel Enterprises. He’d gone to a location where a job was about to begin to discuss details.

When he arrived, he found the person he needed to talk to was teaching a class and wouldn’t be available for 45 minutes. Cooper decided to go get some coffee at a deli about five miles away.

On the way there, he was involved in a serious accident that broke one of his arms and both of his legs.

The New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation awarded Cooper 100% disability.

Barnickel appealed, arguing that Cooper’s accident didn’t arise out of and in the course of his employment.

A state appeals court rejected Barnickel’s argument and said Cooper should receive workers’ comp benefits.

The court said Cooper engaged in “exactly the kind of brief activity which if embarked on by an inside employee working under set time and place limitations, would be compensable under the personal comfort doctrine.”

In other words, accidents occurring during coffee breaks for off-site employees, which are equivalent to those of on-site workers, are eligible for workers’ comp benefits.

Do you think the court made the right decision? Let us know in the Comments Box below.

Cite: Cooper v. Barnickel Enterprises, Superior Crt. of NJ Appellate Div., No. A-1813-08T3, 1/13/10. Court opinion is available here (PDF).

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  1. The court made the wrong decision. But New Jersey is a secular progressive state, so what do you expect. They want to keep the free market system down and its people dependent on the government. New Jersey sheep. Hopefully, they made a start in a better direction with their new governor. But, they need tort reform badly.

  2. Correct decision.

    Lets say that said employee decided to wait at the work site. Anything could have happened, he could have been struck by a passing vehicle while parked.

    Point being if it were not for his job, he would not have been in that car at that time. Passing the time getting a coffee or not.

    This story does not say who was at fault in the accident. If he were speeding or breaking other driving safety rules I may have another opinion.

  3. There is too much information not given. Was there coffee available at the job site where the conversation waws to take place? Why not stay on site five miles is a long way to go for just 45 minutes. Was there a coffee shop closer? Not enough information for me to make a decision. Thanks for the information.

  4. Wrong decision.

    The article does not say that he was taking a coffee break. It says that he arrived early for a meeting and decided to kill time by driving to get coffee.

    Had he been sitting in the parking lot and struck, as viewer stated, this would have been a different set of circumstances entirely.

  5. I wouldn’t think it would matter whose fault the accident was or if there was a closer coffee shop, etc. The facts seem to be that he was driving a company truck, which the company was responsible for, was on a job for the company, and was arthorizid to drive the truck. Had he waited in the waiting room and the roof caved in, as it did at the Dallas Cowboy’s Facility a while back, wouldn’t he be able to get comp? I would think so. What is the difference?

  6. Why isn’t the driver of the other vehicle liable for his disability? Or was he at fault for the accident? I agree with Ralph. There’s not enough information to make a well informed decision. If he wasn’t at fault will the courts allow him to sue for additional benefits from the other party? When is the legal rangling going to stop? If he was in his personal car, there wouldn’t be any question about the worker’s comp.

  7. Generally I have seen decisions based on the following common sense explanation- “Injuries during scheduled lunch or rest breaks are generally not covered by workers’ compensation. However, injuries during unscheduled rest breaks may be covered in some instances, depending on the employer’s rules regarding breaks as well as what you were doing during that break.

    During both lunch and rest breaks, if you are doing something in furtherance of your employer’s business or by your employer’s instruction, an injury during that time is likely covered by workers’ compensation. Examples include running an errand for your boss during lunch or carrying tool from one part of a shop to another during a rest break. These actions transform the non-work period into covered time.”

    That being said, this employee was driving a company vehicle and I would be glad that liability would be limited to Workers Compensation, rather than have to defend employee training, drivers license, vehicle maintenence and safety, and still be open to litigation.

  8. I agree with Bill. While the employee did make the decision to leave the premises and get some coffee he was in a company vehicle and being paid for his time. The company had entrusted him with traveling for the company. If the accident was his fault because of being drunk or on drugs then I would think the WC court would look at it different. If it was an error in judgment or the other guys fault I believe it would have no bearing on the decision. Someone made a comment about him arriving early but that put’s him at fault for poor time management, nothing else. But the article just says the person he was to see was teaching a class and he would have to wait another 45 minutes. So why not take a break and get a cup of coffee while at the same time review your notes and work on the presentation. That would be a normal part of someone’s daily activities and compensable under WC. If I am traveling for the company and in between flights I have an hour or more wait so I go get a cup of coffee to kill some time. While walking back to the ticket area I fall down and get hurt, that would be covered under WC so what is the difference?

  9. I disagree with the decision. With the information as presented. The employer felt that the employee by his own admission decided to use the company vehicle for personal use, to use company property for personal gain. The information “given” does not state anything other than the employee wanted a cup of coffee. The employee made choices, he could have decided not to get a cup, he could have walked, and he could have maybe got a cup of coffee, water on premises or packed a thermos if he knew he was going to be early. The employee could have just waited as instructed. The information as presented states only the employee wanted a cup of coffee. So if he decided to drive 100 miles would that have been OK too!
    Now the employer is stuck with higher taxes, a totaled vehicle, and is out a valuable employee. Plus the meeting then did not take place with the customer as scheduled. The employer gets screwed.
    It was not the employer’s instructions by the presented information to go get a cup of coffee with the company truck.
    I feel that in these cases there should be a no fault provision for the employer. This decision to get coffee was not the instigated the employer. In hind sight it was obviously a bad decision by the employee. If the state wishes to cover these personal decisions then let the state bear the burden.

  10. This is a prime example of why we are in financial trouble. The employer clearly has no responsibility of this accident, why hold them/comp carrier responsible. It seems as if everyone is out to make a buck with a comp claim or a lawsuit.
    You people that support the employee must be UNION pukes.
    This injury has NOTHING to do with work….not work related; go after whoever is responsible for the accident.

  11. Wow, Jeff, “you people,” “UNION pukes?” I sense some real hostility there. We do live in the United States, where we are allowed our opinion, regardless. Is there really a reason for name calling? Besides, whether you agree or not, when a person has a company truck and on company time, the company has responsibilities. Just like if you loan someone your car and they run a red light, you get the ticket in the mail, not the driver. Or even worse, if you loan your car to someone and they use it to buy drugs, your car can be confiscated and sold at auction. It doesn’t matter that someone else was using your car.
    This is why employers need to really be careful who they allow to drive company vehicles, just as we should also be careful to whom we loan our vihicles.
    Oh yes, I have never worked for a UNION company and I’m not a “UNION puke.” I just have a different opinion than you. Sue me!

  12. Jeff, unfortunately, New Jersey has so many laws in place to favor the worker, it makes it difficult for an employer to win. I think if the employee was at fault for the accident, the employer has the right to sue the employee for the damaged property. In Jersey, an employer has to sue for any damages an employee does on the job. Unions, in my opinion, have had their day. They started the labor movement to get away from the sweat houses.
    I imagine the ruling of the courts may have been different in another state.

  13. I agree that there are alot of factors not revealed. It would seem to me that if he were in an auto accident that the vehicle insurance shoulde cover alot of the expenses. It is were the other driver’s fault then his insurance should cover it. It it were his fault and he made a bad decision then he should be responsible for it. How many of you work for someone and how many of you are the owners? That would probably explain the difference in opinions.

  14. Was permission to leave company property required and granted? An employee has a few minutes to kill and just gets in a company vehicle and leaves to go get coffee five miles away – that scenario does not seem to be “in the normal course of duties of employment” UNLESS that type of lax behaviour is allowed normally. If this is one employee setting his / her own rules “… need coffee – bye…” then no, bad decision.

  15. Agree with the decision for the information provided. Let’s think about this poor guy who has to live and it takes money. He was working and the synopsis doesn’t indicate he is anything but a good employee.

  16. I don’t believe enough information is given regarding the case. The brief description says that, “He’d gone to a location” to discuss details about an upcoming job. Was the location out of town? If so, I’d say yes, this is definitely compensable.

  17. Mike Porter says:

    I agree, there really isn’t enough information given here to really provide a sound conclusion. We do know he left the company site to meet at another site to review an up cpming project. He left to get coffee and was in an accident. My question would be more inline to who’s fault the accident was and why the insurance company didn’t end up paying. Each state is different in regards to worker comp and how leagal systems work. It seems to me the job this guy had requires him to travel so he’s already at some risk. I’m not at all for going after companies to get rich because of an accident. I do feel companies need to make an effort on helping their employees when they do get hurt. I guess it all seems different when it happens to you!!! Anyway, the real problem is that there are to many companies taking it in the shorts because too many of us want too sue every time something bad happens. Just not enough information, I wonder what we’ll all do when these companies all close up!!

  18. This poor employee! Why are we assuming the employer is not as poor. All these assumtion I think are based that the employer has money to spend spend spend. By the information given the “employee decided on is own to go get himself a cup of coffee”. It did not say he was getting a cup of coffee for the customer as well. Let us say the acident was the emloyee’s fault. Obviously he, not the employer, must have broke a law common to all users of the highway. Again this should not effect the employer any more then if employee stold or used the van to rob a bank. Let us say the accident was not his fault. Should not the other driver and his/her insurance support the employee. Once again perhaps the state should support the employee not the employer as a no fault by the employer.

    Blind assumption that an employee can do no wrong, have no liability for his/her actions while on a job is distroying the work place. This is probably the biggest reason employers go over seas to make products, why they out source jobs then keep it inhouse. This is where the unions have gone to far.

    Walking a few steps to a coffee shop in an airport and taking the risks of getting in a vehicle for personnal gain should be two discinct situations.

  19. George, I don’t know if you have considered this or not, but worker’s comp. could have paid the employee’s claim and then subrogate against the other party, if he was insured.

    Again, we don’t really have enough facts based on the brief synopsis to make a decision. Perhaps we should review the court case itself.

  20. It really does not matter fault, the key point is use of vehicle by an employee during the coarse of employment. Not the coffee, but the use of a company vehicle.

  21. Larry Curvin says:

    Having been an employer for over 43 years and being involved in similar cases, I find the comments interesting.

    However, based strictly on rule of law (Federal and New Jersey) as described below, I would disagree with the decision. This is especially true if the employee made a habit of taking breaks that were not considered compensable and had been warned that he was breaking company policy.

    Furthermore, according to Federal law and New Jersey law, the break was more than 20 minutes which is not compensable therefore, he was not on the company payroll.

    If the employee were to use a company vehicle to go to lunch (which is not compensable time) and was in an accident, he would not be on the company payroll so he should not be covered by Workers Compensation. In retrospect, if the employee was in an accident where he was at fault and there were injuries, the company (or insurance company) would be responsible.

    Federal law does not require lunch or coffee breaks. However, when employers do offer short breaks (usually lasting about 5 to 20 minutes), federal law considers the breaks as compensable work hours that would be included in the sum of hours worked during the work week and considered in determining if overtime was worked. Unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks need not be counted as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer’s rules, and any extension of the break will be punished.

    Bona fide meal periods (typically lasting at least 30 minutes), serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, thus, are not work time and are not compensable.

    In New Jersey, the mandatory break law only applies to minors under the age of 18 and they must be given a thirty (30) minute meal period after five (5) consecutive hours of work. Company policy dictates break and lunch periods for anyone over the age of 18.

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