A state supreme court says had it not been for one factor, it would have ruled in favor of an employee receiving workers’ comp for an injury that occurred off her employer’s premises. What was that factor?
It’s an all-too-common occurrence in the business world: Schedule pressures cause employees to miss meal breaks.
That’s what happened to Andrea Schrecker who worked in the payment processing department at US Bank Home Mortgages in Owensboro, KY.
As a full-time employee, Schrecker was entitled to a one-hour unpaid lunch break and two 15-minute paid breaks per day. Employees, including Schrecker, regularly left the building to get lunch from fast food restaurants across the street.
On Dec. 31, 2007, one of Schrecker’s co-workers was absent. Schrecker decided to work straight through from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (6.5 hours), when she signed out for her paid afternoon break to quickly get something to eat from a restaurant across the street.
Schrecker was crossing the street at a point between two intersections where there was no crosswalk. One driver stopped to let Schrecker cross, but another car came along and struck her as she cross the street. Her head struck the car’s windshield.
Following the injury, Schrecker complained of pain in her back, chest, right shoulder, left knee and left calf. She also suffered headaches, depression, memory loss, difficulty concentrating and sleep disturbance. She filed for workers’ comp, and the bank denied the claim.
An administrative law judge concluded Schrecker’s injury occurred while she was within the course and scope of her employment and awarded her medical and income benefits.
The bank appealed to the Workers’ Compensation Board, which upheld the ALJ’s decision based on the personal comfort doctrine.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld the decision, noting Schrecker was injured while on a paid break “seeking refreshment,” and that the bank allowed employees to leave the premises during such breaks.
The bank appealed again, arguing Schrecker’s injury occurred outside the course and scope of her employment.
Always cross at the corner
In reviewing the case, the Kentucky Supreme Court consulted Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law after determining that no previous case in the state was exactly like Schrecker’s.
Larson’s says when it comes to rest breaks, the operative principle is whether the employer retained authority over the employee during the period, even if the worker went off premises.
The court said when it came to determining that in this case, several factors were in Schrecker’s favor:
- The break was relatively short duration
- She was paid, and
- The break was sanctioned by the employer.
Some factors weighed in the bank’s favor:
- She was free to go where she wanted and
- She was free to do whatever she wanted during the break.
“If this were all of the evidence,” the court wrote, “we would likely defer to the ALJ. However, one factor outweighs the others.”
Larson’s also notes if the hazards encountered by the employee while off premises do not flow from employment or aren’t encountered in normal going and coming, the employer isn’t liable.
The court found Schrecker’s decision to cross in the middle of the street where there was no crosswalk “negate[d] any authority US Bank may have had over her.”
Schrecker deviated from normal going and coming by crossing the street between intersections. For that reason, the majority on the Kentucky Supreme Court negated her claim.
Two justices dissented, arguing that the majority inserted fault into the case which was against the spirit of the state’s workers’ comp law. The two justices took into consideration that Schrecker was under time constraints, particularly on Dec. 31 to meet end-of-year deadlines, and that meant the bank maintained control over her during the paid break.
In the majority, the five agreeing justices wrote they didn’t rule Schrecker’s claim wasn’t compensable because she was at fault for her injury. Rather, the justices ruled her claim wasn’t compensable because she deviated from normal coming and going activities, and Larson’s says that requires denial of her claim.
The two dissenting justices leveled a blistering attack on the majority’s opinion, saying it threatened to construe the state’s workers comp law as “a mechanism by which employers can insulate themselves from liability by asserting contributory negligence.”
What do you think about the court’s decision? Let us know in the comments.
(US Bank Home Mortgage v. Andrea Schrecker, Supreme Court of Kentucky, No. 2012-SC-000665-WC, 12/18/14)