Use of a Company-Owned Vehicle May Override the ‘Coming and Going’ Rule in Workers’ Comp Claims
December 1, 2005
• by Mike Antich
However, on Oct. 21, 2005, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, ruled in a 4-3 decision that the state’s “coming and going” rule does not apply when an employee dies while driving to work in a company car he specifically demanded before being hired by his employer. In Wachs v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board, the case involved James Wachs who was killed in October 1998 while driving to work in a company-provided vehicle. At the time of his death, Wachs was employed as a supervisor of office equipment technicians at American Office Systems (AOS). On the day of the accident, Wachs was called to the home office to work on two fax machines a client dropped off for service. While driving to work in the company car, he was killed in a traffic accident
The case began when AOS’s insurer Donegal Mutual Insurance Co. denied Wachs’ widow’s claim for coverage. In earlier decisions, Pennsylvania case law had established that an employer is generally not liable for injuries sustained by an employee while he or she is traveling to or from work. However, Wachs’ widow was able to secure benefits by providing evidence of a negotiated contract stating her deceased husband’s employment was contingent on his getting a company car. The car was provided to Wachs as part of a compensation contract negotiated at the time he was hired seven years prior to his death. Wachs had returned to AOS in 1991 after spending several years working for a competitor. An AOS official testified that the only way Wachs could be convinced to return to AOS was if he was given a company car.
"Because [Wachs’ widow] established by substantial evidence that decedent’s negotiated employment contract included transportation to and from work via a company car, and decedent was killed on his way to work in that car, we affirm the Common-wealth Court’s order granting fatal death benefits to [her]," Justice J. Michael Eakin wrote in the Oct. 21 decision.
In a number of decisions, both the Commonwealth Court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have interpreted the Workers’ Compensation Act as permitting claims if one of four exceptions is met. The four exceptions are: 1. claimant’s employment contract includes transportation to and from work; 2. claimant has no fixed place of work; 3. claimant is on a special mission for employer; 4. special circumstances are such that claimant was furthering the business of the employer.
Exceptions Based on Company Car are Common
Workers comp laws vary by state so a contractual exception may not occur in every jurisdiction, but fleet managers should be aware that while details may vary, exceptions based on employer-provided transportation are quite common. This could also include group transportation using a company-owned vehicle.
In a May 25, 2005 New Jersey case – Sprigg v. Telsource Corp. – an employee filed a motion for medical benefits based on an accident that occurred while he was driving home from a remote worksite in a company vehicle. Initially, he was denied compensation because he was driving home when the accident occurred. However, on appeal the workers’ compensation judge determined that the petitioner’s accident was compensable under two exceptions to the coming and going rule – the “special mission” and “travel time” exceptions.
In another Pennsylvania case – Poling v. Asplundh Tree Expert Co. – the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board ruled that a carpooling employee who is killed during a traffic accident involving a company-owned vehicle is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Roger Poling, an employee of Asplundh, drove a company-owned truck to and from work on a daily basis. Although a ridesharing arrangement was not part of his employment contract with Asplundh, Poling provided daily transportation for two coworkers who lived more than two hours away from the Asplundh worksite. While carpooling from his home to his workplace, Poling died in a car accident. Initially, the judge found that Poling’s estate was not entitled to workers’ comp benefits, but on appeal it was ruled that Poling met one of the four exceptions to the coming and going rule.
What are the Lessons?
The lesson for management is that your fleet policy regarding the use of company vehicles should specifically state the manner and method that company vehicles are to be used by employees.
According to the legal opinions I have read, failure to properly define the use of a company vehicle in a written fleet policy that is acknowledged by employee drivers may potentially result in your company’s liability during workers’ compensation litigation.
Let me know what you think.