Injuries During A Paid  Travel Time Lunch Break Are Deemed Non-Compensable


On March 25, 2024, in an unpublished decision, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division rendered a decision that provided clarity with respect to the analysis of an off-premises lunchtime injury. In Latschaw v. Lakewood Township Police Department, the Court affirmed the denial of the claim by the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) where the petitioner was injured during the course of an off-premises lunchtime motor vehicle accident despite the fact that she was paid during her lunch break.

The trial of the case consisted only of the testimony of the petitioner since there was no real dispute regarding the facts. The petitioner was an emergency police dispatcher. She was working the 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift and had left the station for her meal break at approximately 6:00 p.m. Pursuant to the Collective Negotiation Agreement between her employer and the Labor Union, the petitioner was paid her salary during her lunch break whether or not she took the lunch break off premises. The petitioner drove her personal vehicle from the station to the restaurant. She did not perform any work-related tasks during her trip. While driving back to the station, she was rear ended by another vehicle causing injuries to her cervical and lumbar spines, as well as her left leg and left ankle.

The petitioner filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits which was denied by the employer based upon the course and scope of employment defense. Following her testimony and arguments, the WCJ dismissed the petitioner’s claim concluding that she was not in the course of her employment when she was injured because she was on a personal errand.

While this appeal was pending, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Keim v. Above All Termite and Pest Control, 256 N.J. 47, 55 (2023), which clarified the statutory requirements of N.J.S.A. 34:15-36 that governed compensability of injuries sustained away from the employee’s regular workplace. In that decision, the Supreme Court found the injuries compensable when the petitioner, while driving an employer authorized vehicle, was involved in a motor vehicle accident driving to the employer’s premises in order to load the vehicle with necessary supplies for the day. This Court applied the reasoning of Keim but reached the opposite conclusion in terms of compensability. Significantly, the Court noted once again that conclusions of law such as “course and scope of employment” are fully reviewable by the Appellate Division.

What was enlightening and clarifying in the decision was the approach the Court took to address 4 distinct rules that defined commencement and termination of employment and thus compensability of injuries under Section 36 of the statute. The 4 scenarios to be addressed to determine compensability of an off-premises injury are:

  1. The premises rule;
  2. The special mission rule;
  3. The paid travel time rule; and
  4. The authorized vehicle rule.

Applied to this case, the Court only addressed the first 3 scenarios since the petitioner was not in an authorized vehicle.

With respect to the premises rule, Section 36 makes it clear that employment shall terminate when the employee leaves the employer’s place of employment, “excluding areas not under control of the employer”. Applied to this matter, the Court easily rejected this possible compensable scenario since the petitioner was not injured on the premises of the employer or under the control of the employer, but rather on a public street.

Addressing the second scenario, the petitioner was not covered under the special mission rule since at the time of the accident the petitioner was not on a special mission for her employer, but simply pursuing a personal errand in obtaining her meal. The Court noted that had the petitioner been pursuing meals for multiple employees at the direction of her employer, the conclusion would have been a finding of compensability.

The Court noted that the fact pattern in Keim was quite distinct since the petitioner was driving to resupply his pest control vehicle with chemicals from his workplace at the employer’s express direction.

Finally, the Court noted that the petitioner is not covered under the paid travel time rule. The Court noted that this scenario only applies when:

  1. The employee’s injury is sustained while going to and from a jobsite separate from the place of employment, and;
  2. The employee is paid for the time spent in that travel.

While the petitioner expressed that she was paid for her time on her lunch break that in and of itself did not establish compensability. The paid travel time required the petitioner to be traveling “to and from a jobsite” at the time of the accident. The petitioner was travelling to and from a restaurant and not a job site, thus even though she was paid for the lunch break, the injuries did not take place during the course of her employment. In support of this aspect of the decision, the Court relied upon several cases including injuries sustained during a paid lunch break on premises while the petitioner was playing paddleball. Even though the petitioner was paid, the employer did not contribute to, participate in, or encourage the game. The game had no connection with employment duties.

COMMENT: The decision is certainly an interesting one. Ordinarily, off premises lunch injuries are not compensable. The fact that the petitioner was paid during the course of her lunch whether or not she was on premises could have resulted in a different decision. However, the Court was careful to note that payment alone is insufficient if, at the time of the incident, the petitioner is not furthering her employer’s business interests, on a special mission or driving to/from a job site. Simply being paid while being off premises pursuing a purely personal errand does not amount to a compensable claim.

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