Safety and OSHA News

Killed in company vehicle crash on the way home: Does widow get death benefits?

An estimator, who traveled as part of his job, died when his work vehicle was involved in a crash on the way home. During the commute, he talked to his boss on the phone. Did his widow get workers’ comp death benefits? 

Christopher Wright worked as an estimator for Alltech Wiring & Controls in North Carolina. He visited client sites to prepare estimates for security system installations. Alltech provided Wright and other employees with company-owned trucks for their jobs. Wright used the truck assigned to him for his commute and for travel to and from job sites.

On Feb. 1, 2016, Wright left the Alltech office at about 5:30 p.m. and began driving home in his work truck. Wright spoke to the owner of Alltech on his work cell phone for about the first 10 minutes during his drive. Wright then stopped at a Target. After resuming his trip, Wright spoke to his wife on the phone for a couple of minutes. Approximately a minute after ending the call with his wife, Wright collided with another vehicle on a road he frequently used during his commute. He died later that evening as a result of his injuries.

Wright’s widow applied for workers’ comp death benefits. Alltech denied the claim.

A deputy commissioner and the North Carolina Industrial Commission dismissed the claim. Wright’s widow appealed to a state court.

Coming and going rule exception?

Under the coming and going rule, an injury doesn’t occur in the course of employment if it’s during the employee’s travel to or from work. However, there are exceptions.

Wright’s widow argued her husband’s death fell under the contractual duty exception and the traveling salesperson exception.

Under the contractual duty exception, an injury qualifies for comp “where the employer furnishes the means of transportation … as an incident to the contract of employment.”

The Industrial Commission had found:

  • There was no written or oral contract entitling Wright to use the work truck.
  • Alltech’s employee handbook said, “An employee who travels in a company vehicle from home before his regular workday and returns to his home at the end of the workday is engaged in ordinary home to work travel which is a normal incident of employment … Normal travel from home to work is not work time.”
  • While employees were permitted to use work trucks to travel to and from home, this wasn’t guaranteed.

The state appeals court agreed with the Industrial Commission that the contractual duty exception didn’t apply to Wright’s case.

Under the traveling salesperson exception, if an employee’s travel is connected to employment, an injury occurring during travel is compensable. However, an injured employee who has fixed hours and a fixed place of work doesn’t fall within the traveling salesperson exception.

The Industrial Commission had found:

  • Wright was a salaried employee, and he generally worked from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • Wright was fatally injured while he was driving home from Alltech’s fixed place of business, where he had worked most of that day during the company’s regular working hours. There was no evidence showing Wright was on his way to a job site or that he was acting in the course of his employment at the time of the crash. Wright wasn’t using his work cell phone, laptop or tablet at the time of the wreck.

Therefore, the state appeals court also agreed with the Industrial Commission’s finding that the traveling salesperson exception didn’t apply to Wright’s case.

As a result, the court upheld the Industrial Commission’s ruling that Wright’s fatal crash didn’t qualify for workers’ comp death benefits for his family.

(Trisha Wright v. Alltech Wiring & Controls, Court of Appeals of North Carolina, No. COA18-833, 3/19/19)

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